WASHINGTON -- It may be one of the most serious missteps of the federal government shutdown.
After weeks of planning, the nation’s spy chief sent home nearly three-quarters of the workers at the government’s intelligence agencies when faced with the partial shutdown. The move, James Clapper later admitted himself, put the United States at greater risk of terrorist attacks. He then reversed course and brought thousands of employees back to work.
A review by McClatchy finds that lawmakers, former intelligence officials and national security experts say they were shocked that the administration furloughed the bulk of federal workers at 16 intelligence agencies, many of them tasked with the most important job in the government: safeguarding lives.
“It’s difficult for me to understand,” said Leon Panetta, who served as the director of the CIA and the secretary of defense under President Barack Obama. “People that are involved in our intelligence are critical. You can’t possibly put 70 percent on furlough and not harm national security.”
The United States’ intelligence community has grown dramatically since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, with countless employees working with new sophisticated tools to save lives at home and abroad. But in the first government shutdown since 2001, the administration kept active-duty troops on the job while civilian employees who monitor and analyze threats across the globe were sent home.
“Intelligence is our first line of defense,” said Gene Poteat, a retired CIA officer who heads the Association of Former Intelligence Officers.
Some accuse Obama administration officials of deciding whom to send home based on politics, seeking to dramatize the impact of the shutdown as part of a plan to blame Republicans in the House of Representatives for blocking a budget deal and failing to pay for important or basic services.
“The president is, of course, taking every step necessary as president to ensure the security of the American people,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “There are consequences to shutdown, and they extend far beyond closures of parks and memorials or other things that we’ve heard a lot about.”
But others say the process was surprisingly haphazard – a moving target based on public pressure, differing legal opinions, a new law passed to ensure that the military got paid, even a change of heart.
J. David Cox Sr., the national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 670,000 federal workers, said some managers had changed their minds after being criticized by the public or lawmakers.
“There’s absolutely no rhyme or reason to it,” he said. “They keep changing the rules. As the pressure is on, they’re saying, ‘Just come back to work.’ ”
Spokesmen at the White House and National Security Council referred specific questions to Clapper, the director of national intelligence. His office didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.
Clapper, 72, a retired lieutenant general in the Air Force, served in several key positions in the intelligence community before Obama nominated him as the director of national intelligence in 2010, the office’s fourth director in a post that was created after the 2001 attacks. The Senate confirmed him unanimously, but his relations on Capitol Hill have been strained in recent months after he lied to lawmakers about the scope of the government’s vast surveillance programs.