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opinion | John D. Woodward Jr.

A former CIA officer on how a shutdown hurts national security

(AP/file 2013)

Because Congress seems unable to carry out one of its fundamental responsibilities — approving an annual budget — the federal government could shut down on Oct. 1. Such shutdowns are costly — the Economist estimates that the 2013 shutdown cost the US economy $24 billion in lost output. Yet our lawmakers need to realize that such a drastic action can have adverse consequences beyond dollars and cents. Any shutdown could have serious deleterious effects on American national security.

To be clear, certain mission critical work will continue. Navy SEAL teams will be armed and on call. Nuclear missile silos will be staffed and at the ready. In less obvious ways, however, a government shutdown forces significant and underappreciated costs on national security.

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As a CIA technical intelligence officer, I had first-hand experience with these costs during the last government shutdown in 2013. While a contingent of designated “excepted” government personnel were exempt from the shutdown and reported for duty, many CIA officers and support contractors were furloughed and ordered not to come to work. By law, furloughed personnel were even prohibited from voluntarily carrying out their duties.

As a result of the shutdown, some overseas missions that had taken months to organize and plan were postponed. Some work with foreign partners was put on the back-burner. Training to keep officers operationally honed was temporarily put on hold or ended mid-course.

As the threat of a shutdown loomed in 2013, CIA managers were forced to spend their time and efforts making certain that their components would be in full compliance with the shutdown, lest they ran afoul of Congress. This legal compliance extended to ordering CIA officers who had travelled overseas for official duties to fly immediately back to Washington prior to the Oct. 1 deadline. No doubt history is repeating itself now.

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To be sure, America did not suffer a terrorist attack during the 2013 shutdown. And certainly, there are countless times in intelligence work when missions and projects get delayed or scrubbed for various reasons. Moreover, intelligence officers are seasoned in dealing with setbacks and adversity.

But intelligence operations, unlike many other government tasks, cannot simply be restarted after postponement — these operations often present a one-shot opportunity that, once lost, cannot be regained. (Not to mention that the trust and cooperation of foreign partners is difficult to sustain in the face of obvious legislative dysfunctionality that a shutdown exemplifies). As a result, a shutdown threatens to kill — permanently — potentially valuable intelligence operations.

Congress cannot ignore these real-world consequences of their actions. The nation faces many threats, and intelligence officers are an invaluable first line of defense. But they must be allowed to do their jobs. Dealing with a turbulent world is challenging enough without Congress making it more difficult.

If Congress insists on a shutdown, then President Obama should exercise his executive powers by declaring all personnel and activities in the US intelligence community excepted from the shutdown.

The advice lawmakers should heed is that a take-no-prisoner approach does not work well in resolving legislative conflicts, nor does it help the nation’s security.


John D. Woodward Jr., a retired CIA officer, is a professor at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. The views expressed are his own.