World / Politics

FBI agents' association warns of harm from U.S. shutdown to crime-fighting and national security

AP

The association that represents thousands of FBI agents warned Thursday that a partial government shutdown could cause laboratory delays, reduce money for investigations and make it harder to recruit and retain agents.

The FBI Agents Association sent a petition to the White House and congressional leaders encouraging them to fund the FBI immediately. Friday will be the first day that the nearly 13,000 special agents will miss their paychecks.

“This is not about politics for special agents. For special agents, financial security is national security,” Tom O’Connor, the association’s president, told reporters in a conference call.

Nearly 5,000 special agents, intelligence analysts, and technical and professional staff are furloughed. Those absences mean FBI operations are understaffed and subject to delays, including at the FBI lab. And the lapse in funding means fewer tools, such as informants or undercover operations, are available for investigations.

“We have people that are not being able to come to work, which means they’re not able to do the work,” O’Connor said. “Which means we’re going to have a backlog.”

O’Connor also said the shutdown may cause delays in agents being able to get or renew security clearances, potentially disqualifying some agents from continuing to participate in certain cases. He said it could make it harder to recruit and retain agents who could find better-paying or more stable jobs outside the government.

The association has more than 14,000 active-duty and retired special agent members.

The Trump administration was considering using billions in unspent disaster relief funds earmarked for areas including hurricane-pounded Puerto Rico and Texas and more than a dozen other states to pay for President Donald Trump’s border wall as he weighs signing a national emergency declaration to get it built without Congress.

The White House has directed the Army Corps of Engineers to comb through its budget, including $13.9 billion in emergency funds that Congress earmarked last year, to see what money could be diverted to the wall as part of a declaration. That’s according to a congressional aide and administration official familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity due to lack of authorization to speak publicly.

It is the latest sign that the administration is laying the groundwork for a possible emergency order as negotiations between Trump and congressional Democrats to reopen the partially shuttered government have ground to a halt. Trump is demanding billions for his wall that Democrats won’t give him. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of federal workers are set to miss paychecks Friday.

Trump on Thursday gave his strongest public indication yet that he is leaning toward an emergency declaration as he traveled to the Texas border to continue to press his case for the wall.

Trump told reporters as he left the White House that he was still holding out hope for a deal, but that if it “doesn’t work out, probably I will do it. I would almost say definitely.”

Todd Semonite, commanding general of the Army Corps of Engineers, was traveling with Trump on Thursday. The Army Corps of Engineers directed questions to the Pentagon, which directed questions to Congress.

Nearly $14 billion in emergency disaster relief funds have been allocated but not yet obligated through contracts for a variety of projects in states including California, Florida and Texas and in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico that have been ravaged by recent hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters, according to the aide familiar with the matter.

The money funds a variety of projects, mostly flood control to prevent future disasters.

A second official with knowledge of the proposal said it would fund construction of about 315 miles (500 km) of border barrier. Right now, barriers blanket about a third of the 1,954-mile (3,145-km) border with Mexico.

Defense Department officials had already been combing data on more than $10 billion in military construction projects to determine how much of it would be available for emergency spending this year.

Officials have estimated that roughly a quarter to a third of the money, or $2.5 billion to $3 billion, could be available — less than the $5.7 billion Trump is seeking. The majority has also already been obligated — meaning that it has been spent or a contract has been signed and there would be penalties for cancellation.

Regardless of where the money is found, an emergency declaration would draw an immediate legal challenge from Democrats, who have accused Trump of trying to manufacture a crisis at the southern border to justify his wall. Critics have said the move would be an unconstitutional abuse of emergency powers. Trump said Thursday that his lawyers have told him he has the “absolute right.”

Republican and Democratic lawmakers raised immediate concerns over shifting funds that have already been approved by Congress for projects in states across the nation.

Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, a top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, said he has been hearing from lawmakers in recent days concerned that Army Corps projects in their states could be canceled or postponed.

“If they drag the money out of here,” Simpson said in an interview late Thursday, “a lot of members will have problem with it.”

Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon and incoming chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in an interview that rebuilding the disaster areas is “a way higher priority benefiting the American people than a wasteful wall.”

He said the Army Corps works on dams, levees and other projects across the nation and has an enormous backlog of unfunded needs. “It would be an incredible disservice to the American people and the economy” to divert the money to the border wall, he said.

And Rep. Nydia Velazquez, a New York Democrat, said in a statement that it would be “beyond appalling for the president to take money from places like Puerto Rico that have suffered enormous catastrophes, costing thousands of American citizens’ lives, in order to pay for Donald Trump’s foolish, offensive and hateful wall.”

“Siphoning funding from real disasters to pay for a crisis manufactured by the president is wholly unacceptable and the American people won’t fall for it,” she said.