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Another agent who left the bureau last year told me that certain leads that might be politically controversial were sometimes tabled indefinitely because they were not seen as worth incurring the wrath of the Trump White House. In the two and a half years since the FBI launched its counterintelligence investigation into potential coordination between members of Trump’s campaign and Russia, the president has chided the FBI, former FBI Director James Comey, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the Russia “witch hunt,” and the “deep state” in dozens of tweets, rallies, and interviews. Last April, he called the FBI and Justice Department’s desire to withhold sensitive information related to the ongoing investigation “an embarrassment to our country.” The withering morale and possibility of having to work without pay has made it increasingly difficult to recruit new agents, the agents said.
The government shutdown, now heading into its 20th day, is the cherry on top of a galling two years. “You know the old adage that crime doesn’t pay? Well right now, agents are starting to feel like neither does the federal government,” O’Connor said. In a conference call with reporters on Thursday, O’Connor said that nearly 5,000 special agents, intelligence analysts, attorneys, and professional staff are currently furloughed, resulting in reduced staffing for “critical functions that support field operations.” None of them are being paid, he said. He wouldn’t elaborate on which investigations were being impacted, but emphasized that a lack of funding has hurt agents’ ability to do their job “completely and to the fullest ability we have.”
O’Connor also described a mounting backlog at Quantico labs, which provide forensic-analysis support services to the FBI, and said that funds supporting drug trafficking and undercover operations have been dangerously limited. Some, particularly those who work at Quantico labs, are not even allowed to come to work because of the shutdown. “FBI headquarters is trying to make sure that the most important topics are covered,” O’Connor said. “But that will get more and more difficult as the pot of money gets smaller and is not refilled.” According to an FBIAA spokesman, FBI field offices are responsible for allocating their resources and determining which activities are most central to specific missions or operations. Which areas are prioritized—whether it’s drug trafficking, counterterrorism, etc.—is also at the discretion of field-office leadership. “However, as the pool of resources dwindles, the scope of what can be adequately funded will also shrink,” the spokesman, Paul Nathanson, said.
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If the issue does not get resolved within the next few weeks, however, agents in various field offices may stage a callout—a coordinated sick day to protest the shutdown. (Transportation Security Administration agents have already begun doing so, according to CNN.) O’Connor said he had not heard of any plans to strike or begin calling in sick en masse, but he emphasized that he would not support it if they did. “Whether we’re paid or not, we’re going to show up and do our jobs to protect the United States,” he said. A coordinated “sick-out” would be one way of protesting the current conditions, since the Taft-Hartley Act, enacted in 1947, prohibits public employees from overtly striking. Federal-employee unions may also find recourse in the courts—some have already filed lawsuits arguing that requiring employees to work without pay violates the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.