The FBI has been the darling of federal law enforcement for decades, at least in Congress. What the bureau wanted, the bureau got, while other agencies remained hard-pressed to meet the challenges of their assignments. The bureau’s persuasiveness among lawmakers was unchallenged, perhaps partly out of fear and partly a hangover from the “G-Man” image built long ago and bought into by half the kids in America.
Just about every time something went wrong — from incidents in Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in the early 1990s to the 1996 Olympic bombings in Atlanta — the FBI passed it off as the result of insufficient manpower or the fault of another agency. “We need more men and resources” became its mantra for every mistake — including the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America, where the bureau failed to heed warning signs.
That influence on Capitol Hill and in the executive branch has resulted in, among other things, a workforce of nearly 36,000 people and constant upgrades of the bureau’s equipment and offices nationwide. The autocratic J. Edgar Hoover may be gone, but the propaganda and well-oiled lobbying machine he designed are still alive and kicking. While the 9/11 experience exposed the FBI’s lack of attention to counterterrorism and shifted its approach from a reactive force to one of prevention, it hasn’t stopped the bureau’s reliance on melodrama to get its way.
So the nation’s first-line defender against terrorism has decided that, because of mandated budget cuts under sequestration, it will not function at full speed for at least 10 days during the fiscal year, perhaps as soon as next month. Only a skeleton force will be available on those designated days, with the rest of the organization taking unpaid leave. It’s doubtful those days will be announced in advance, given the penchant of al-Qaida and other terrorist groups for keeping tabs on such opportunities.
Senior officials decided this was a more expedient way to meet budgetary obligations than furloughing large numbers of employees at different times. Personnel make up 60 percent of the FBI’s budget, now at $8 billion. Sequestration will require the FBI to cut about $700 million.
Newly installed FBI Director James Comey, visiting an FBI field office in Richmond, Va., this month, said he didn’t think the public knew enough about the effects of budget cuts on the agency. “I’m not sure the effects of sequestration on this great institution that is charged with protecting the American people — that those effects are known well enough yet and it is something I intend to talk about,” he said.
A hiring freeze will result in about 2,200 vacant positions by the end of the month; that number will increase to more than 3,000 by the same time next year, The New York Times reports.
Comey’s remarks seemed designed to bring pressure on Congress and his Justice Department bosses.
It didn’t take Comey long to pick up where Hoover and a long list of his successors left off. The bureau rarely has been subtle in its message. It simply holds out the specter of impending disaster if its functions are disrupted (and don’t blame the bureau should tragedy occur). That, of course, ignores the decades of budgetary coddling.
To be fair, the agency — which may or may not be bloated, depending on with whom one talks — has a difficult assignment in these days of violent enemies. And an argument can be made that the entire federal law-enforcement workforce should be exempt from irresponsible downholds.
But it seems over the top for the FBI to once again whine that it must seriously cut back its services, including its stated mission of protecting Americans. Sending almost the entire workforce home without pay for 10 designated days may seem more efficient, but is it really necessary? Couldn’t the same thing be achieved by lopping off a few days of paid vacation or donating some paid sick leave without incurring civil service wrath?
We’ll probably never know. My bet is that the dramatic announcement alone will result once again in Congress finding a way to exempt the bureau from what everyone else must suffer.
Email Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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