Over the past two weeks, many of my friends and former colleagues across government in important national security related positions have received some of the dumbest advice ever from their U.S. government agency employers. By now, everyone has surely heard about the Office of Personnel Management recommending federal workers trade services such as painting or carpentry with landlords in exchange for rent, or the Coast Guard suggesting its employees babysit, dog walk or hold a garage sale. Aside from being insulting and demeaning, this advice is also stupid for a variety of reasons.
First of all, any of these federal employees know that if they want to seek employment outside their agency, they need to go through an approval process to ensure that there are no conflicts of interest, that it doesn’t interfere with their federal job, and that there are no concerns about ethics or perception. I guess garage sales are fine because there are no restrictions that prevent employees from selling their own property — but many other jobs a federal employee might take, to make ends meet during a furlough, could actually cost them their federal job when the shutdown ends.
There are actually some pretty good reasons the government doesn’t want employees, especially those with security clearances and national security jobs, freelancing on the side to make a little extra scratch, even during a government shutdown. For one, many of those employees — such as FBI agents, the Coast Guard and Transportation Security Administration workers — still have to report to and perform their regular jobs during a furlough. If agencies allow employees to go get second jobs and those same agencies continue to have them work without pay, how long will it be before those employees start missing work from their federal job to show up at the job that is actually paying them? Not that long, I’d bet, which is probably not good for national security.
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Additionally, who is it that might be interested in hiring someone with a security clearance, even for a short period of time and paying them decently? I don’t know, maybe someone who wants information on or influence in an agency when the shutdown finally ends.
That might be as innocent as a company simply wanting some insight into a government process, or it could be more concerning — for instance, a company wanting information on a pending regulation or acquisition decision that will give it a competitive advantage. Even worse, it could be a company backed by a foreign entity actively taking advantage of the government shutdown in order to recruit new informants, even unwitting ones, into their intelligence collection effort. That doesn’t sound so good for national security, either.
Angry, strapped and they could lose careers
It gets worse. Our federal employees are generally pretty smart, loyal, ethical, patriotic and aware of all this already, so they don’t go and get second jobs or sell information during a shutdown. However, they do get frustrated, angry even, and a lot of them will leave government service. The ones that stay (and, by the way, a lot of the best ones leave) risk having long-term financial problems due to missed paychecks — missed mortgage payments, rents, car loans, student loans and even loan payments to their own savings plans.
That’s right, federal employees who have loans against their Thrift Savings Plan federal retirement savings accounts actually have to continue paying the government during the furlough period, even though the government isn’t paying them! All of these issues lead to bad credit, bad credit leads to problems with maintaining a security clearance, and which could lead to good people losing their careers.
Don’t turn furloughed feds into insider threats
It gets even worse. There are a few telltale signs to look out for in an employee who has been or is susceptible to being compromised by foreign intelligence. Is the employee in financial distress? Yes, thank you government shutdown. Does the employee seem frustrated or disenfranchised at work? Assuming they get back to work, hell yes. Has the employee ever made disparaging comments about the United States government or its leaders? I literally don’t know anyone who could honestly answer no to this question.
Well done, the government has just made tens of thousands of employees or more potentially fit the profile of an insider threat. It’s consequently going to be a lot harder to find the real threats now. Agencies should get back to work on that backlog of security investigations and stop giving additional employment advice to workers. It’s not helping.
Erik Brine is a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council. He previously served at the White House, the Defense Department and the State Department under the Obama and Trump administrations. The views expressed here are his own.