Obama-era officials warn of shutdown's damage to national security

Obama-era officials warn of shutdown's damage to national security
© Greg Nash

A group of former Homeland Security officials on Thursday issued dire warnings on the partial government shutdown’s effect on national security, saying the lapse in funding is likely putting the U.S. at risk.

The panel, convened by House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonDemocrats call for increased security after 'send her back' chants Here are the 95 Democrats who voted to support impeachment House votes to kill impeachment effort against Trump MORE (D-Miss.) and largely comprised of Obama-era officials, warned that the 34-day shutdown may have harmful effects that could last years.

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Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who served during the Obama administration, called the shutdown “a security crisis, and it is one of our own making.”

He said the lapse in funding for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other federal agencies is inflicting stress, hardship and anxiety "on the very people we rely on for security," potentially forcing federal staffers to quit their jobs.

“A breaking point may come tomorrow when they miss a paycheck for the second time this year,” Johnson said.

He asserted that even if the shutdown were to end tomorrow, “I fear the damage done to our security will be for months, if not years.”

Johnson and the other former officials, who worked at agencies including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), warned that the prolonged shutdown will likely hurt DHS’s ability to keep its top talent in place and cause lasting damage to recruitment efforts.

Peter Neffenger, a former TSA administrator and a retired vice commandant for the U.S. Coast Guard, said many staffers working at his two previous agencies are already receiving relatively low salaries and can’t afford to continue working when it’s unclear when their next paycheck is coming.

“There comes a point where you just have to take care of yourself,” he said.

Other former officials warned that the shutdown could stop the U.S. from being able to fully respond to crises such as a natural disaster.

“It’s having a long-term, extremely detrimental effect on the nation's preparedness to respond to disaster and acts of terrorism in the United States,” said Tim Manning, former deputy administrator for protection and national preparedness at FEMA.

Manning said that because of how FEMA is structured, the majority of employees who would respond in the case of a disaster are currently furloughed and not considered essential.

He said that means if there was an event that needed a federal response, “there’d be nobody there to deal with it.”

Caitlin Durkovich, former assistant secretary for infrastructure protection at DHS, said she’s concerned about the long-term impact the shutdown could have on strategic initiatives meant to deter threats.

She said that while DHS has staff in place to handle security concerns, including cybersecurity for federal networks, the shutdown means that preventative projects "have been significantly reduced, if not come to a halt."

"As each day passes ... the strategic risk to our nation continues to grow," Durkovich said.

Thompson, who took over as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee this month, told reporters that he was working to have Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenKirstjen Michele NielsenTrump quietly rolled back programs to detect, combat weapons of mass destruction: report Trump's family separation policy has taken US to 'lowest depth possible,' says former immigration lawyer Four heated moments from House hearing on conditions at border facilities MORE testify on issues like border security, which has been at the heart of the shutdown battle.

However, he wasn't optimistic about when the government will reopen. Asked when he thought a funding deal might be reached, Thompson laughed and replied, "Ask the president."

The Senate is set to vote on competing bills Thursday that would reopen the government — one backed by the White House, the other by Democrats. Both are expected to fall short of the 60 votes needed to advance in the Senate.