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During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa asked the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, if the government shutdown was putting America at risk. Clapper's response was not reassuring.

Grassley: Does America remain safe, even with a shutdown?

Clapper: Um. [pauses] I have to qualify that sir. I don't feel that I can make such a guarantee as each day of this sutdown goes by. I'm very concerned about the jeopardy to the country because of this.

Sen. Patrick Leahy: What you're saying is that it becomes cumulative. You're saying the danger and threat becomes cumulative.

Clapper: Yes, sir.

It is in Clapper's interests to suggest that his agency's work is indispensable at any level below 100 percent, of course; the hearing itself was predicated on allowing defense intelligence agencies like the NSA (which Clapper oversees) to argue for the importance of their work in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations. Nor have Clapper's statements always been entirely accurate. (Sitting behind him at the hearing were members of the audience holding signs reading, "Clapper lies.") But even so, his statement was stark.

Later, Grassley raised an important point. The number of employees furloughed stems from Clapper's determination of who should be "excepted;" that is, whose work is so important that it cannot be allowed to lapse during the shutdown.

Grassley: If you can't tell us that America's safe, why then don't you simply use your authority to simply furlough fewer employees?

Clapper: Sir, we're gonna look at that. In fact, we're going to do it every day to see where we need — to see what is the right talent set or analytic expertise that we need. We're doing that as we speak. So I anticipate that as this thing drags out that we make adjustments and probably recall more people.

Particularly in NSA's case since they have a heavy military population which are not furloughed. So early on, NSA has excepted a very low percentage of its civilian employees. I am certain that over time, that condition cannot continue.

Expect this to quickly become a talking point in the shutdown debate.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.