As the longest government shutdown in American history drags on, it’s not just hurting the morale of America’s federal workforce and the broader American economy. It’s hurting our national security. Some of the damage is already plainly apparent—but in four crucial ways, its harms will persist long after the government reopens. We’re beginning to see indicators of short-term national- and homeland-security vulnerabilities. Airports are short on screeners; thousands of FBI agents, analysts, and staff are on furlough; and our government’s newest cybersecurity unit had barely launched before half of its staff was furloughed. Each of these lapses may cause specific problems: Dangerous weapons may slip through security, endangering the flying public; investigative leads may suffer from inattention, causing investigations of federal crimes to be delayed or go unfinished; and recent efforts to improve federal cybersecurity may be stopped before they ever really started. Moreover, given the importance this administration purports to place on immigration enforcement and border security, the irony of the Department of Homeland Security’s border agents and immigration officials not being compensated to perform their important work is hard to miss.
DHS, the agency charged with key civilian cybersecurity coordination and liaison work with state and local law-enforcement agencies, has been hit hard by the shutdown. Both the executive and legislative branches recognize cybersecurity threats as a top national-security priority. Halting cybersecurity work makes it easier for hostile nation-states to steal Americans’ personal information and corporate intellectual property, among other targets. DHS is responsible for thwarting those efforts, by sharing cybersecurity information with the private sector as well as with state and local governments. Moreover, DHS provides services to state and local governments that are working to improve their election security, which we know is under siege.
But the longer-term costs to national security of this shutdown may be even greater than the short-term risks. One is the cost to the federal workforce itself. Experienced staff, such as foreign-service officers, are quitting. Our government is losing talent that took years to recruit and train, and will take years to replace. Agencies are accustomed to training their workforces to competency and then having their best-trained and highest-performing employees take on management and leadership roles. Instead, they may now find their most competent and able agents, investigators, and analysts leaving for the private sector.