* Hagel says 400,000 defense civilians will be sent home
* New law could enable some civilians to be called back
* Action casts 'very significant pall' over security
By David Alexander
SEOUL, Oct 1 The U.S. government shutdown will
undermine American credibility abroad and lead allies to
question its commitment to treaty obligations, the U.S. defense
chief warned on Tuesday as he prepared to put 400,000 civilian
workers on unpaid leave.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who was visiting South Korea
to celebrate the two nations' 60-year-old mutual defense treaty,
said Pentagon lawyers were analyzing a new law passed by
Congress to see if additional civilian workers could be spared
But for the moment, when the department's 800,000 civilians
report to work on Tuesday, approximately half will be told they
are not exempted by law from the government shutdown and asked
to go home, Hagel told reporters.
The Pentagon and other U.S. government agencies began to
implement shutdown plans on Tuesday after Congress failed to
reach a deal to fund the federal government in the new fiscal
year beginning Oct. 1.
A last-minute measure passed by Congress and signed by
President Barack Obama will ensure the Pentagon's 1.4 million
military employees worldwide will continue to receive paychecks
during the shutdown. They were required to work under prior law
but would not have been paid until Congress approved funding.
The new law also ensures that civilians who are required to
work despite the shutdown will also be paid, Hagel said. But
under law, anyone not directly involved in protecting lives and
property are not considered exempt and must be placed on leave.
"Our lawyers are now looking through the (new) law that the
president signed ... to see if there's any margin here or
widening in the interpretation of the law regarding exempt
versus non-exempt civilians," Hagel said. "Our lawyers believe
that maybe we can expand the exempt status."
Hagel said he didn't know how many people the department
might be able to call back from leave, or how long it would take
to reach a determination, but he said it was "the priority" in
the Pentagon's general counsel's office.
The shutdown has direct implications for the staff with
Hagel on his week-long trip to South Korea and Japan. They are
considered exempt while supporting the secretary's mission
abroad, but that status may change for some when they return
home on Friday, Pentagon spokesman George Little said.
The U.S. defense chief said he broke away from celebrations
in South Korea on Monday to discuss the shutdown by phone with
Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Pentagon Comptroller
Robert Hale. He said they would hold another round of talks on
Tuesday as the shutdown went into force.
"We'll probably have to furlough about 400,000 DoD (Defense
Department) civilians when they come to work here in a couple of
hours," Hagel said. "Those that have been designated non-exempt
will be told and will be asked to go home."
The Pentagon chief said since arriving in Seoul on Sunday
night, he had been questioned by South Korean officials about
the threatened shutdown and why it seemed likely to take place.
"It does have an effect on our relationships around the
world and it cuts straight to the obvious question: Can you rely
on the United States as a reliable partner to fulfill its
commitments to its allies?" Hagel told reporters.
"Here this great republic and democracy, the United States
of America, shuts down its government," he added. "The Pentagon,
even though we are (partly) exempted, the military has no
budget. We are still living under this dark cloud of uncertainty
not knowing what's going to happen.
"It does cast a very significant pall over America's
credibility with our allies when this kind of thing happens.
It's nonsensical ... It's completely irresponsible," Hagel said.
He urged Congress to "find a new center of gravity of
responsibility and start to govern as is their responsibility."