As shutdown shrinks resources, investigations and surveillance operations are impeded.
Stressing that special agents risk their security clearances if they incur much personal debt, leaders of the 14,450-member FBI Agents Association on Thursday sent a petition asking Congress and the White House to immediately resume funding for the partially idled Justice Department, the bureau’s parent agency.
“On Friday, Jan. 11, 2019, FBI agents will not be paid due to the partial government shutdown, but we will continue our work protecting our nation,” said the petition signed by the chiefs of the FBI’s 56 field offices. “Financial security is a matter of national security.”
Association President Thomas O’Connor told reporters that the petition, drafted by the volunteer leaders of the group that represents 11,300 active FBI special agents (nearly 90 percent), along with about 3,000 more former agents, “is not about politics for special agents.” FBI employees “put their lives on the line every day, and all share an unwavering focus on the mission to defend the Constitution and the people of our country,” he said.
But the funding lapse has resulted in furloughs of almost 5,000 FBI special agents, intelligence analysts, attorneys and professional staff, he said, and many others are working and not being paid. The petition described the damage in three ways.
“FBI Special Agents are subject to high security standards that include rigorous and routine financial background checks to ensure that agents are financially stable and responsible,” it said. “Missing payments on debts could create delays in securing or renewing security clearances, and could even disqualify agents from continuing to serve in some cases.”
Speaking operationally, the frozen funding “situation is not sustainable,” the petition said. O’Connor said the “diminishing resources” could cause delays and increase the evidence-processing backlog at the FBI’s laboratory in Quantico, Va., on which state and local law enforcement entities depend for technical support. Similarly, support operations are currently “understaffed,” and “the resource shortage restricts the tools available to investigations, for undercover surveillance operations against drug traffickers and work with informants,” he added.
Third, the petition said, “Pay uncertainty undermines the FBI’s ability to recruit and retain high-caliber professionals. Special Agents are skilled professionals who have a variety of employment options in the private sector,” it said. “The ongoing financial insecurity caused by the failure to fund the FBI could lead some FBI agents to consider career options that provide more stability for their families.”
The agents association’s volunteer leaders—who are active-duty agents themselves—have met recently with Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., O’Connor said, and were well received. Still, “the support staff can’t come to work, but want to come to work,” O’Connor said, when asked about the lab. “They believe so strongly in the mission, it is upsetting to people not to be able to do their job.”
The longer the shutdown, the more difficult things will get “as the pot of money gets smaller,” O’Connor added. He credited headquarters with “doing all it can to make sure the important topics are covered.”
Another association, the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI, applauded the petition. “While dedicated FBI employees will keep the essential services of the FBI running, the government shutdown is negatively impacting the FBI and the Department of Justice at a time when their worldwide responsibilities are much heightened,” Executive Director Nancy Savage told Government Executive. “The FBI has critical personnel shortages that have already placed a burden on the agency. A speedy resolution to the budget impasse must be the No. 1 priority in order to maintain the safety and security of our country.”
Asked about how individual agents are faring with scrambled finances, O’Connor spoke of one special agent who preemptively sent a letter to his bank alerting the lender of the furlough status. The bank said they appreciate it, but the agent was told he “would incur any fees for a missed payment,” he said.
Asked whether FBI employees are taking temporary jobs, O’Connor told Government Executive that many have inquired about supplementing their lack of income. “Normally, those who seek outside employment have to file for approval by the bureau, and there’s a very limited amount of money they can make” over a year, he said, Usually, it’s for someone, for example, who wants to teach a college class, he said, and the requirements “are very strict. We’ve discussed this with headquarters, and they’re going to expedite some of those requests.”
A joke making the rounds in the association, as O’Connor put it, goes, “Crime doesn’t pay, and neither does the federal government.”