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Sequestration Could Give Ammunition to Spies, Officials Warn

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The main discussion about sequestration weakening national security has centered on cuts to the military, but government and industry officials are warning that the cuts could have another unforeseen threat: foreign spying.

In a Buzzfeed article published Wednesday, Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and several officials with knowledge of security clearance procedures expressed worry that cuts of about 20 percent to federal workers’ pay could give ammunition to foreign spies on the hunt for classified information.

Their worry is that sequestration cuts could leave some furloughed workers scrounging for money and willing to pass off information in exchange for cash.

"When I was in the Air Force, we had a few espionage cases. Every time we had an espionage case, it was somebody who got involved because their life had fallen apart," Graham told Buzzfeed.

Although that is speculation at this point – there is no known instance since sequestration took effect March 1 – officials acknowledge the furloughs give spies abroad a wider field of potential recruits.

In an interview with Government Executive on Thursday, former CIA Director James Woolsey said the concerns are legitimate.

“It’s not good to put people who are custodians of classified information and so forth into a situation of pressure,” Woolsey said.

Woolsey resigned in 1994 in response to accusations that he botched the handling of Aldrich Ames, a CIA officer who was found guilty of feeding information to Russian spies. The Ames case is regarded as the worst in CIA history – he handed over troves of critical information to enemy spies, including the names of U.S. agents.

Although most workers who make it through the vetting process are “straight shooters,” it’s inevitable that a weak person gets in every so often, Woolsey said. However, he stressed diminishing support for the military is a far greater threat.

About 4.8 million U.S. citizens held security clearance in 2011, according to a study conducted by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and cited by Buzzfeed.

According to a private sector official who connects government agencies with potential employees, most clearance are for the lowest classification known as “confidential,” which gives access to sensitive information in secure “clean” facilities. While American spies also have access, many such clearances are for IT workers, managers and engineers.

“From a security standpoint, that means that there are millions of Americans with knowledge of what may seem like mundane information — say, the time a truck driver is to report for duty on a particular day — but which could be critical to agents looking to hijack sensitive chemicals, attack an installation, or simply track movements of government officials,” the article says.

Reach Reporter Ian Kullgren at or 202-326-2143. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. 

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Ian Kullgren is a staff reporter for the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire. Prior to his current role, he covered the 2012 election in his home state of Michigan, where he followed the Republican primary race in Michigan’s 6th Congressional District for MLive Media Group. He was also a member of the Michigan capitol press corps for Michigan State University's State News, covering Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, the state legislature and the Republican National Convention in Tampa.

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