The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The FBI can’t investigate terrorists and fraudsters due to budget cuts

When he became director of the FBI, James Comey encountered an unwelcome surprise. (Evan Vucci/AP)

We now look to be hurtling toward a shutdown of the U.S. government. While you can't completely rule out a last-ditch deal, the real questions now revolve around "How long will it last?" and "Will the resolution also raise the debt ceiling?" and "How vicious will the circular firing squad and bigger recriminations be among House and Senate Republicans be after a deal is struck?"

But while the drama plays out on Capitol Hill, a separate report over the weekend shows what is really at stake. As our colleague Sari Horwitz reports, the new FBI director, James Comey, had an unpleasant surprise as he traveled the country to meet with agents.

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.”

The reason for the hard times at the FBI is the federal budget cuts that began with the 2011 debt ceiling deal, including the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration.

Remember the sequester? When it went into effect March 1, it appeared to be something of a bust in terms of the damage it caused, at least in terms of how that damage has played out in the public debate. The White House had been claiming that the cuts would be devastating. Then they went into effect, and, well, not much of anything happened.

As it turns out, slashing discretionary spending 5.6 percent doesn't cause massive, immediate, camera-ready dislocations in how government works. When such effects did arise -- namely in the form of long delays at airports -- Congress tweaked the law to fix it. While economists attribute sluggish economic growth this year in significant part to the sequester cuts, that impact has hardly occupied the public's attention.

The new report from the FBI Agents Association is a reminder of the smaller, less visible effects that the cuts have had across the country. Any large organization can endure budget cuts like that in the short run. People work a little harder, less urgent projects are shifted to the back burner, empty positions go unfilled, and so on. But the longer the scrimping goes on, the less those tricks can fill the gap. After seven months of sequestration cuts, here are some of the things the FBI is having to scrimp on, according to anonymous comments by agents:

Restrictions in surveillance technology means the necessary facilities used for terrorist  communications won't be monitored.


No gas means cases don't get worked – period. Nothing is close to anything on the reservation. Witnesses and victims don't have phones. We have to drive to them. They are too poor to drive to us. … Fewer guys - fewer cases get worked. That is the cruel truth. Real people won't get justice. The face of the sequester is a molested Navajo kid or a beaten Apache woman, neither of whom will see justice.


We have approximately 10 very important [counter-intelligence] cases that we would open … 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 case loads.


The hiring freeze has prohibited our team from adding new agents to combat the significant surge in investment fraud and mortgage loan modification fraud. Resources are stretched and not able to completely address the financial losses experienced in our area of responsibility . . . just this past week, four known fraudsters were advertising in the classifieds for employees to expand their current fraudulent schemes, however, with our lack of resources and now the additional cuts and furloughs, we are not able to address the progressing schemes.


I … investigate street gangs. Recently … we have been facing funding shortages on the criminal side for the last couple of years. There are certain gangsters I can’t go after with a Confidential Human Source (CHS) or any other way as ‘drug buy’ money is not sufficient.

Here's what these stories of the on-the-ground impact of sequestration on the FBI has to do with a likely government shutdown.

The effects of government on our lives are, much of the time, invisible. Things work in the background, making our lives better in ways that we don't even notice. Government-funded weather satellites provide the raw information that allows your local forecaster to tell you whether it will rain today. NIH researchers are developing insights that might cure cancer a generation from now. And the FBI is constantly building cases that put bad guys behind bars and lead would-be bad guys to think twice before bilking the elderly in a mortgage scam or running a street gang.

That's not to say there is no waste in government. Of course there is, as there is in any large organization. There are plenty of agencies whose missions seem outdated or unnecessary in the modern age.

But simply slashing funding for all agencies across the board, or shutting down nearly the whole  government, doesn't do anything to make government more efficient or shutter unneeded agencies. The U.S. economy and society will keep on chugging with the government shutdown and spending levels will be sharply below their levels of a year ago. But in the process, some really important, if not so visible, work will be going undone, and over time the country will be worse off.

If you don't believe a pointy-headed journalist, just ask your friendly neighborhood FBI agent.