WASHINGTON (Reuters) - FBI Director James Comey said on Thursday that the U.S. budget stalemate may force him to put agents on furlough, leaving the agency, which investigates major crimes and national security threats, potentially short-handed.
Although the country's major investigative agency avoided furloughs when the first round of automatic spending cuts took effect in March, "I can't avoid it at this point," Comey told reporters in a briefing at FBI headquarters. He said the bureau had already stopped training new agents.
Speaking to major U.S. news outlets for the first time since he was sworn in this month to a 10-year term as FBI director, Comey also defended the government's newly disclosed domestic spying programs, but predicted the U.S. Supreme Court would ultimately decide if they are lawful.
Comey, 52, was a senior Justice Department official under President George W. Bush and then worked as a lawyer for Lockheed Martin Corp and hedge fund firm Bridgewater Associates.
He was named by President Barack Obama to succeed Robert Mueller, whose 12 years as FBI director made him the second longest-serving director after J. Edgar Hoover.
The FBI during Mueller's final year made its budget by "looking through the couch cushions," Comey said. With a new government fiscal year set to begin October 1 and Congress not close to passing a budget, "the couch has been turned upside-down," he said.
The earlier belt-tightening was forced by automatic, across-the-board spending cuts known as the "sequester." The Obama administration and Congress have not been able to agree on tax increases or targeted spending cuts that would preserve certain essential government functions.
Comey said he was considering a furlough of 10 days or more for each of the FBI's 36,000 employees. New agent classes at a bureau compound in Quantico, Virginia, stopped within the past few months, he said.
"I'm happy to have a discussion with anyone who thinks I have too many people or too many resources," Comey said.
Comey declined to name specific areas of the FBI that would be most hurt by cuts, but said he was concerned about all areas, "given what we're responsible for doing."
BRIEFED ON BENGHAZI
The FBI, which is the closest thing the United States has to a national police force, handles major investigations such as Monday's mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard that killed 13 people, including the shooter. The agency is also responsible for preventing attacks by al Qaeda and other militant groups, policing underage prostitution and investigating white-collar crime.
Comey said the first matter he was briefed on for his new job was the FBI's investigation into the September 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans died there.
Republicans in Congress have criticized the Obama administration for not doing more to protect the Benghazi outpost and have put pressure on the FBI to find those responsible.
U.S. authorities have brought sealed criminal charges for the attack, Obama told reporters in August. Comey said the FBI was committed to the investigation, but he would not discuss its status.
Asked about U.S. surveillance programs that since June have been the subject of worldwide debate, Comey defended one program in particular: the collection of basic details about all American telephone calls into a database going back seven years.
"It is both a useful tool and a tool that is circumscribed by all kinds of checks and balances," he said.
He said he welcomed a public conversation about the proper balance between privacy rights and surveillance programs, but condemned leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that prompted the latest debate, saying U.S. government secrets should not be a casualty.
"I think, as a leader, I need to look for opportunities to have those discussions," Comey said.
Asked whether the limit on government searches should be revisited by the Supreme Court, Comey said: "I don't know. Whether I think so or not, it's going to be. There's going to be litigation."
(Reporting by David Ingram; Editing by Karey Van Hall and Peter Cooney)