Simultaneously underscoring how every government official is trying to play up the shutdown as particularly harmful to them, and how little Director of National Intelligence James Clapper understands America’s opposition to NSA surveillance, his Senate testimony today focused on how the shutdown has damaged the NSA’s capabilities.
Clapper told the panel that the shutdown had put an estimated 70 percent of the NSA’s “intelligence workers” on unpaid leave. NSA chief Gen. Keith Alexander elaborated that this included 4,000 computer scientists and 1,000 mathematicians.
Clapper went on to warn that the layoff “seriously damages” the ability of spies to protect the United States, devastated worker morale and that the number of employees laid off indefinitely without pay made them inviting targets for foreign spies.
“This is a dreamland for foreign intelligence services,” Clapper warned, saying that it was also dramatically degrading the nation’s global intelligence capabilities.
Pro-surveillance senators criticized the move, saying that the DNI’s lawyers should’ve prevented such large-scale layoffs, with Sen. Ted Cruz (R – TX) saying that the shutdown left the US vulnerable to terrorist attack, adding “I don’t believe President Obama should be playing politics with this.”
Clapper’s tone changed starkly at this point, as he noted that the legal definition of “nonessential” personnel was pretty clear on the matter, and that the remaining workers were the ones who deal with “imminent threats to life or property.”
That’s an admission that Clapper would likely have preferred to avoid making, and the fact that 70 percent of the NSA’s surveillance workers aren’t doing things related to imminent threats underscores just how ridiculously large the agency has gotten, and how much of its day-to-day operations are nonessential in a very real sense.