FBI Agents Worry Criminals Will Have It Easier if Sequestration Continues

FBI Director James Comey FBI Director James Comey Susan Walsh/AP

Looming furloughs, an ongoing hiring freeze and a suspension of training will leave the FBI less capable of preventing and responding to terrorist attacks and other criminal activities, according to a group representing the federal law enforcement officials.

While the Justice Department avoided furloughs entirely in fiscal 2013, the FBI Agents Association -- which represents 12,000 active and former Special Agents -- said at a press briefing Wednesday that cuts last year were so deep unpaid leave would be unavoidable if sequestration goes through as scheduled in 2014. Reynaldo Tariche, president of the FBIAA, said he expects 10 to15 furlough days in fiscal 2014. FBI Director James Comey has predicted 10 furlough days at the agency.

While agents in furlough status would likely be recalled if a major event occurred, furloughs would hamper investigations to prevent such an event and organizing employees to come back onto the job would likely prove difficult, FBIAA officials said.

“Terrorists don’t get furloughed,” Tariche said. “Cyber hackers don’t get furloughed. Gang leaders are not furloughed and it’s not an acceptable thing to furlough active FBI agents because of the risks posed from both terrorist and criminal threats.”

With the exception of an emergency situation, agents would be prohibited from conducting day-to-day activities while on furlough. Therefore, some agents noted, if a source called a furloughed agent to inform him or her of a development in a case or a major movement of drugs, for example, the agent could not respond to or pursue the lead.

In addition to furloughs, sequestration budget caps -- which are set to cut $700 million from the FBI’s budget this fiscal year -- would severely reduce both internal training at the bureau and programs for other law enforcement entities. Training facilities at FBI’s academy in Quantico, Va., are already empty, and agents are not fostering relationships with local police forces. The longer these cuts drag on, FBIAA officials said, the more significant the impact will be down the road.

“The time to introduce yourself is not at a 9/11 or a Navy Yard event,” said Thomas O’Connor, FBIAA vice president an active agent in the Washington, D.C., field office. “You should already know the people you’re working with, have trained with them. I think that’s something very important we may be missing in the future with these cuts.”

O’Connor added even after the sequestration dust settles, the damage of the ongoing hiring freeze would mean the FBI will be missing the mid-range employee corps needed to take over leadership positions when more senior members retire.  The FBI has about 3,000 fewer employees than its normal force due to the freeze. 

FBIAA officials said the group has taken its message to Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have been receptive to pleas to restore full funding to the agency. Even in the event Congress fails to strike a broad deal to offset sequestration cuts, the organization will advocate targeted legislative action to ensure a full FBI budget of about $8.3 billion.

Despite the cuts and the imminent possibility of significantly more severe reductions, the agents said the workforce is staying positive and morale remains high.

“We’re used to dealing with obstacles on a daily basis, and we look at this as just another obstacle,” said John Fagan, an agent in the Baltimore field office. “It definitely doesn’t make it any easier for us, but we’re used to these obstacles and it’s something we deal with. We’re going to be there no matter what.”

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