WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. intelligence community leaders warned on Wednesday that the government shutdown, now in its second day, is an “insidious” threat to national security that will increase the longer thousands of workers are off the job.
“I’ve been in the intelligence business for about 50 years. I’ve never seen anything like this,” James Clapper, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, said at a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the eavesdropping programs.
“This (the shutdown) affects our global capability to support the military, to support diplomacy and foreign policy matters. The danger here is that this will accumulate over time. The damage will be insidious, so each day that goes by the jeopardy increases,” he said.
Congress’ inability to agree on budget legislation caused a partial government shutdown that was in its second day on Wednesday, with no end in sight. The last time the government was closed to this extent was in 1995 and 1996.
Clapper and General Keith Alexander, director of the National Security, spoke at a hearing in a Senate office building left quiet with thousands of workers furloughed because the government was largely closed down.
Intelligence agencies are already facing an outcry over the extent of the government’s eavesdropping on Americans’ telephone and Internet communications.
Clapper said 70 percent of civilian intelligence workers had to be furloughed this week because they were not deemed to be addressing an imminent threat to life or property, although that number would be adjusted if the shutdown continues.
“We will make adjustments depending on what we see as the potential threats to life and property, to quote the law,” he said at the hearing on oversight of the intelligence agencies’ collection of communications data.
Clapper said the law forced the extensive furloughs, and that the agencies were focused on the most severe threats and supporting troops in Afghanistan and other operations overseas.
U.S. intelligence agencies have been under scrutiny - with the public and lawmakers’ demanding changes, since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked information starting in June that the government collects far more Internet and telephone data than previously known.
Alexander, the NSA director, said furloughs related to the shutdown were hurting morale and that his agency risked losing thousands of Ph.Ds, computer scientists and mathematicians forced off the job by the shutdown.
“Our nation needs people like this and the way we treat them is to tell them, ‘you need to go home because we can’t afford to pay you,'” he said.
Clapper said the agencies risked losing valuable staff, especially after layoffs forced by the so-called “sequestration” budget cuts that went into effect earlier this year.
“This is a dreamland for foreign intelligence agencies to recruit,” he said.
Editing by Jackie Frank