New FBI Director James B. Comey stunned by impact of sequestration on agents in the field

September 27, 2013

In the first week of his new job as FBI director, James B. Comey had already heard about how training had stopped for recruits at Quantico and that the bureau wasn’t planning on bringing in any new agents next year, all because of budget cuts.

But Comey was stunned when he began visiting FBI field offices this month and heard directly from his special agents. New intelligence investigations were not being opened. Criminal cases were being closed. Informants couldn’t be paid. And there was not enough funding for agents to put gas in their cars.

“My reaction to that . . . ” Comey said about the gas. “I don’t even want to tell you what my reaction to that was.”

For the first time, FBI agents have put together a report about consequences in the field of the across-the-board government budget cuts known as sequestration.

In the 29-page report, “Voices From the Field,” agents from across the country warn that budget cuts and possible furloughs are hurting public safety and threaten their ability to protect Americans.

Here's what some agencies have said about their specific plans in case of a government shutdown.

“We feel in­cred­ibly frustrated and find it very disturbing that we are going to be restrained from protecting Americans from criminal and terrorist attacks,” said Rey Tariche, a special agent on a Long Island gang task force and president of the FBI Agents Association, which wrote the report and represents nearly 12,000 active and former FBI agents.

The agents gave Comey their report Friday, but the director is already well aware of their complaints. Since he took over as director, Comey has been outspoken about budget cuts facing the FBI.

In an interview with reporters last week, Comey said that he visited agents in New York, Richmond and Washington, and what he heard most about was the impact on their criminal and counterterrorism investigations.

“I’m not crying wolf,” Comey said. “I’m not playing a game. This is the FBI. We will salute and execute. But I was very surprised to learn how severe the required cut is — and the potential impact on the FBI.”

The bureau has a hiring freeze. In addition, the FBI may have to cut its budget by 10 percent, or $800 million, out of an annual FBI budget of about $8.1 billion when fiscal 2014 starts Tuesday. Comey said that will require him to cut 3,000 positions. He said he may also have to furlough the FBI’s 36,000 employees for two weeks without pay.

“Quantico is quiet,” Comey said of the storied FBI training academy. “I have no new agent classes going through there. I can’t afford it.”

In the FBI Agents Association report, agents are quoted but did not give their names because they were not authorized to speak publicly about their work.

“We have approximately ten very important counter-intelligence cases that we would open,” one agent wrote. “But we can’t open them because we don’t have the [special agents] to work the investigations and the other agents on the squad already have full caseloads.”

An agent who works white-
collar, fraud and corruption cases wrote, “I am closing cases and not looking to open new ones.”

Some spoke of gas rationing. “No gas means cases don’t get worked — period,” said an agent who investigates crimes on a Native American reservation in the West, where agents have to travel long distances to do their jobs. “Nothing is close to anything on the reservation. Witnesses and victims don’t have phones. We have to drive to them. Fewer guys — fewer cases get worked. That is the cruel truth.”

Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations subcommittee, said he has allocated millions of dollars more to the FBI in his appropriations bill, which has yet to pass.

But FBI special agent Tariche said the allocation is still several hundred million dollars below what the bureau requested to fully fund its operations. Although the money allocated in Wolf’s bill may limit or help avoid furloughs, Tariche said it will not deal with the problems identified by the agents in their report.

“Rep. Wolf has been a longtime supporter of the FBI, and we greatly appreciate his support,”Tariche said. “But it doesn’t address the existing budget cuts and it’s very possible the bureau will never receive the amount of money allocated by his bill.”

Sari Horwitz covers the Justice Department, after 30 years at the paper where she has been an investigative reporter and covered federal law enforcement, crime, education and social services.
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