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Shutdown threatens national security, FBI agents group warns

A helicopter patrols the area around the Capitol as part of the regular security measures in place in Washington, D.C. Executives from the defense industry say the prolonged federal shutdown is beginning to impact larger companies that contract with the military.

MICHAEL S. WILLIAMSON/THE WASHINGTON POST

By DEVLIN BARRETT, TOM JACKMAN AND NICK MIROFF | The Washington Post | Published: January 10, 2019

WASHINGTON — An FBI agents group warned Thursday that the partial government shutdown threatens national security, as thousands of federal law enforcement professionals working without pay grow anxious that personal financial hardships could jeopardize their security clearances and investigations slow with the furloughs of their support staff.

The shutdown is the result of President Donald Trump's insistence that more miles of border wall must be built in the interest of national security — to keep out illegal immigrants and drugs — and Democrats' refusal to go along with his demands for $5.7 billion in wall-construction funds. As the shutdown enters it third week, groups representing those who do everything from patrol borders and guard courthouses to make undercover drug buys have expressed alarm that the political drama has reduced them to bargaining chips while they continue doing dangerous jobs that keep Americans safe.

"It's uncharted territory, as this shutdown is going to be the longest in history," said Thomas O'Connor, president of the FBI Agents Association. "For special agents, financial security is national security."

Of particular concern to FBI personnel is Friday's missed paycheck — their first since the shutdown began in late December.

In a letter to the White House and lawmakers, FBIAA leaders wrote that their agents "are subject to high security standards that include rigorous and routine financial background checks . . . 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."

O'Connor said FBI investigations already are being affected. No one at the FBI is getting paid, but investigators are still working while much of their support staff, including some surveillance experts, is not, O'Connor said. The FBI lab in Quantico, Virginia, has faced significant staff reductions, and the money available for investigative expenses like undercover drug buys is dwindling, he said.

"Operations are being hindered," said O'Connor. "This situation is not sustainable."

The FBI has nearly 13,000 special agents, and already, some families are making tough choices to manage household finances. Several current FBI employees said Thursday they worry the shutdown shows no sign of being resolved soon and that, as a result, they could miss not one but two paychecks.

Dave Gomez, a retired FBI supervisor whose wife works at the bureau, said he is pulling money from his retirement savings to make sure they can pay their mortgage.

Gomez, who experienced a shutdown during the Obama administration, said that back then he told his agents not to worry because shutdowns only last a week or two, not long enough to miss a paycheck.

"What's happening now is a shock for a lot of agents, and I think you will see a lot of agents stressed about missing a paycheck," he said. "FBI agents aren't different than other Americans in that a lot of people live paycheck-to-paycheck."

The shutdown affects all the federal law enforcement agencies within the departments of Justice and Homeland Security. U.S. Marshals guarding the trial of accused drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman in New York, amid extremely tight security, are working without pay. Secret Service agents, DEA agents, ATF agents, Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel, and Customs and Border Protection officers all are working without pay and much of their support staff.

"The thing that concerns us the most," said Patrick O'Carroll, executive director of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, "is with all the 'nonessential' personnel that are not showing up. With active investigations and arrests, when you start taking out the analysts, you're losing a big part of that."

FLEOA has warned its members "to be extra vigilant and cautious performing your duties" because of the increased risks associated with not having support staff available.

The shutdown debate is more complicated within the Border Patrol, because many of those agents support Trump's demand for more wall construction.

Border Patrol union leaders appeared at the White House last week to show their support for Trump despite agents working without pay. And while the president continues to enjoy broad support within the Border Patrol, but some agents say there is growing worry among the rank-and-file about missed car payments and late mortgages. Many of those who are assigned to remote border towns are their families' sole breadwinner.

"People have started to contact creditors," said one agent in Arizona who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

Morale is sinking because agents are already under strain after a busy period along the border that has seen record numbers of families coming across, according to one agent in South Texas who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. This agent faulted Democrats for the shutdown.

The National Border Patrol Council's fealty to the president is not shared by the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents the blue-uniformed Customs and Border Protection officers assigned to U.S. ports of entry, an even larger workforce.

"If employees are working, they must be paid — and if there is not money to pay them, then they should not be working," said NTEU president Tony Reardon in a statement Wednesday, after his union filed a suit alleging that federal laws that force workers to stay on the job without pay are unconstitutional.

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