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Security Workforce Worries

By Joe Davidson
Friday, May 1, 2009

The national security workforce doesn't provide the security it should.

That is one message that emerged from yesterday's testimony before a Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs subcommittee.

The problem is too few people with needed skills, too few qualified applicants to fill vacancies and too little training for those on the job.

"Trained professionals, not technologies, are the cornerstone of our efforts to keep Americans safe," said Bob Graham, a former senator from Florida who is chairman of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism. "And as our technical and scientific workforce retires, and we are unable to replace highly skilled personnel, our agencies and departments will be stretched increasingly thin, which will create needless vulnerabilities."

The lack of people with the right skills can have serious consequences.

Graham said the United States was "so misserved in Iraq" in part because the American security workforce did not have enough speakers of local languages to confirm what turned out to be bogus information from exiles regarding weapons of mass destruction.

"We didn't have anybody who could come in behind that to do the verifications," Graham said in an interview after his testimony. "We went to war under false pretenses," but that could have been avoided with appropriately trained personnel, he added.

He urged the intelligence community to "streamline the hiring process, especially for applicants with critical language capabilities," meaning languages from the Middle East and Central Asia.

Graham and Thomas R. Pickering, a former undersecretary of state for political affairs and now a member of the Project on National Security Reform, pointed to the need for better training of national security civilians.

Military officers typically spend about 25 percent of their time in training, Graham said.

"Even the most qualified and dedicated nonmilitary national security professionals will not be sufficiently trained or educated and have the full career development opportunities of their military counterparts," Pickering said.

BACKING WHISTLEBLOWERS

A bipartisan group from the House wants President Obama to put the power of his administration behind whistleblowers.

In a letter sent to him yesterday, the representatives urged the president to support legislation that would strengthen whistleblower protections and to issue an Executive Order. The suggested order would establish a program to review cases of alleged retaliation against whistleblowers, the letter said, "and where significant injustice has occurred, to make the employee whole by restoring them to government service."

Whistleblowers have repeatedly sounded an alarm about government actions that led to waste, fraud and abuse, according to the letter writers.

"Unfortunately, we cannot expect government employees to continue to sacrifice their careers and risk their own families' security without signals from your Administration that they will be protected," the representatives wrote. "As you may know, 'legal' victories for employees who have been retaliated against for blowing the whistle are almost non-existent."

Those arguments probably will be viewed sympathetically by the president, which is not to say he will do all the representatives ask. He has supported whistleblower rights in the past and has made transparency in government a hallmark of his administration.

The letter was signed by Democrats Carolyn B. Maloney (N.Y.), Chris Van Hollen (Md.), Edolphus Towns (N.Y.), Bruce L. Braley (Iowa) and Gabrielle Giffords (Ariz.), and Republicans Ken Calvert (Calif.) and Todd R. Platts (Pa.)

AGENCY COST-CUTTING

Federal agencies would be required to list administrative expenses and to propose ways to cut them over the next few years, under legislation introduced by Sens. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).

In some cases, those administrative expenses could include personnel costs, Dorgan's office said.

When submitting budget requests to Congress, agency officials would be required to detail administrative expenses and to prepare a plan to cut them by increasing amounts, from 3 percent in fiscal year 2010 to 11 percent by 2013.

"During tough economic times, businesses tighten their belts and cut their overhead costs. Government should do the same," Dorgan said. "This bill is an important step towards ensuring that taxpayer dollars are being used for critical programs that help American families and businesses -- not for unnecessary administrative costs."

A question for federal workers: Are you an unnecessary administrative cost?

Contact Joe Davidson at federaldiary@washpost.com.

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