As the longest government shutdown in American history drags on, it’s not just hurting the morale of America’s federal workforce and the broader American economy. It’s hurting our national security. Some of the damage is already plainly apparent—but in four crucial ways, its harms will persist long after the government reopens.
We’re beginning to see indicators of short-term national- and homeland-security vulnerabilities. Airports are short on screeners; thousands of FBI agents, analysts, and staff are on furlough; and our government’s newest cybersecurity unit had barely launched before half of its staff was furloughed. Each of these lapses may cause specific problems: Dangerous weapons may slip through security, endangering the flying public; investigative leads may suffer from inattention, causing investigations of federal crimes to be delayed or go unfinished; and recent efforts to improve federal cybersecurity may be stopped before they ever really started. Moreover, given the importance this administration purports to place on immigration enforcement and border security, the irony of the Department of Homeland Security’s border agents and immigration officials not being compensated to perform their important work is hard to miss.
DHS, the agency charged with key civilian cybersecurity coordination and liaison work with state and local law-enforcement agencies, has been hit hard by the shutdown. Both the executive and legislative branches recognize cybersecurity threats as a top national-security priority. Halting cybersecurity work makes it easier for hostile nation-states to steal Americans’ personal information and corporate intellectual property, among other targets. DHS is responsible for thwarting those efforts, by sharing cybersecurity information with the private sector as well as with state and local governments. Moreover, DHS provides services to state and local governments that are working to improve their election security, which we know is under siege.
But the longer-term costs to national security of this shutdown may be even greater than the short-term risks. One is the cost to the federal workforce itself. Experienced staff, such as foreign-service officers, are quitting. Our government is losing talent that took years to recruit and train, and will take years to replace. Agencies are accustomed to training their workforces to competency and then having their best-trained and highest-performing employees take on management and leadership roles. Instead, they may now find their most competent and able agents, investigators, and analysts leaving for the private sector.
Whether a federal agent is starting out as a GS-11 or has reached GS-15 status, federal employees in the national- and homeland-security fields—like their counterparts in the private sector or non-national-security government roles—have family responsibilities and financial commitments, such as mortgages and car payments. Public service is a calling, but the financial stress of an uncertain paycheck can cause mid-career national-security professionals to leave the federal workforce just when they are reaching the point where they have attained expert-level knowledge and substantial experience.
Second is the backlog of work that simply doesn’t get done. The law says government employees can work only on imminent threats to life or property during a shutdown. But mid- to long-term intelligence analysis and policy-option preparation is vital to protecting national security. The two of us know from experience how easy it is, even in normal times, for government officials to get swallowed up in the day-to-day. Now we’re losing out on the longer-term perspective even more than usual.
Third, as national-security lawyers, we also know that a national-security workforce facing financial struggles creates a heightened counterintelligence risk. Debt and financial solvency have long been indicators in security background checks to determine whether an individual could be subject to blackmail or influence from a foreign power. We have no doubt that, as this shutdown continues, foreign-intelligence services are considering how they can exploit members of America’s national-security workforce who may be approaching severe financial strain.
Our fourth and final concern may be the most worrisome of all: The United States is showing the world how utterly polarized, even paralyzed, we’ve become. This plays directly into Moscow’s strategy to weaken us at home and abroad. Yes, the Kremlin seems to have wanted Donald Trump in the White House, but even in the campaign’s waning weeks, it didn’t expect him to win—hence Russia’s continued messaging that the election was “rigged,” a meme that disappeared after Trump’s surprising victory. More than Trump’s election, the Kremlin wanted America to tear itself apart, leaving it unable to oppose Russian foreign policy or to push for democratic reforms. The first two years of this administration, with Trump at the helm, have weakened our ties to our global allies in favor of foreign policies more sympathetic to Russian strategic interests. Now, at home, this government shutdown further weakens our defenses with every passing day.
The president says our security requires the shutdown. But actually, the shutdown is the real national-security threat—and its damage will prove lasting.