A new government shutdown will severely diminish morale and production at the National Security Agency, say former agency hackers who were left hanging the last time Congress failed to pass a budget.
The previous shutdown, when Congress couldn’t resolve whether to defund the Affordable Care Act in 2013, wreaked workplace havoc on the NSA, many of whose workers were told to go home and wait to be called to work at an indefinite future date. It forced a halt to the hacking of intelligence targets, a process that requires careful, regular maintenance and can’t easily be paused and then resumed.
The NSA already struggles with employee retention and low morale. A series of high-profile illegal leaks in recent years, a president who sometimes dismisses intelligence findings, and the fact that the private sector is willing to pay top talent far more than the government does all contribute to high turnover, former employees say.
A shutdown is likely to spur already disaffected NSA workers to consider alternatives, especially if it lasts longer than a few days. The 2013 shutdown lasted 16 days.
“When the shutdown happened is when I started to look for work back in the private sector in earnest,” said Tony Robbins, who worked in NSA’s elite Tailored Access Operations unit during the 2013 shutdown and left for a more stable cybersecurity job soon after.
“For so long, NSA made the emphasis on the mission,” Robbins told BuzzFeed News. “Pay not as good as private sector? Think of the mission. Not getting along with your peers? Focus on the mission. A nervous frustrated wreck because of the nature of your work and can't talk to anybody outside of the agency about it because it’s top secret/sensitive compartmented information material? Focus on the mission. It’s clear that Congress didn't care about the mission if they were willing to act like petulant children.”
When news of the 2013 shutdown hit the agency, it created an awkward, demeaning situation where employees were divvied up into those who were critical and those who weren’t.
“The managers who were supposed to be planning missions were instead spending time and resources on determining which missions would continue, with every manager obviously fighting over limited resources for their pet projects,” said Jake Williams, also an NSA TAO employee at the time who later left to devote full time to his own cybersecurity company.
“Many of those not deemed mission-critical were sulking around a little before the eventual shutdown. I suppose that's to be expected since they were being forced to take unpaid leave, and it wasn't certain if they would ever be paid,” he told BuzzFeed News.
Shutdowns are perhaps even more difficult for the thousands of people employed by the NSA on a contract basis, said a former NSA employee who left the agency before the last shutdown to form a company that trains employees in cybersecurity practices. He requested anonymity because of nondisclosure agreements with the agency.
“I was paying money out of my pocket,” he told BuzzFeed News. “The guys were sitting at home, they couldn’t go work with the shutdown because they had to work from government spaces, so they really could not go.”
“I can say anecdotally, because I do know several guys who worked there who went off on their own around 2013, 2014. There was a bigger exodus than normal, and you’ve gotta figure at least some of that was due to the shutdown and guys going ‘screw this.’”
A second shutdown in five years would further exacerbate the problem of a depressed workforce, he said.
“The guys who went through it before are going to go, ‘Here we go again, are you kidding me?’ Especially with the weather in the area, they’ll go, ‘If I knew this was going to last a couple of weeks, I’d go south and get warm, but I don’t know how long it’s going to last, so I gotta stay up here. That makes me even madder.’”
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, the NSA said that while it hoped for a resolution to the budget impasse, it was gearing its staff to prepare for another shutdown. “NSA’s foremost need is to receive an enacted appropriation for Fiscal Year 2018 as soon as possible,” the agency said.
“We are hopeful that there is enough time for Congress to prevent a lapse in appropriations,” the agency said. “However, at this time, prudent management requires planning for the possibility of a shutdown.”