Every week, I offer a glimpse of the kind of intelligence assessments that are likely to come across the desk of the President of the United States, modeled on the President's Daily Briefing, or PDB, which the director of national intelligence prepares for the President almost daily.
Here's this week's briefing:
The government shutdown is already making us more insecure. Because of new vulnerabilities associated with the shutdown, we should pay more attention to new risks.
Those risks include:
The shutdown will introduce specific security vulnerabilities, including at our southern border with Mexico, the longer it goes on. Government employees, including law enforcement, security and intelligence professionals working for the CBP, TSA, ICE, DEA, FBI, Secret Service and others are impacted by the shutdown -- even if they aren't furloughed.
According to CNN, there has been an increase in TSA employees calling in sick to work since the shutdown started. And while the Department of Homeland Security has said publicly that security won't be affected despite these "sickouts," if the trend continues it will be increasingly difficult for TSA to staff all the places it previously had personnel. Fewer airport screeners and security personnel mean more threats could go unnoticed or unaddressed.
TSA agents who do show up to work may also be stretched thin if they have to work extra shifts to account for colleagues who have to miss work, which means that the odds of detecting a threat may decrease.
This is a clarion call to our enemies to take advantage of understaffing and to try to exploit any gaps in our security posture.
And transportation security may not be the only vulnerable spot. Our borders are largely secured by federal employees working without pay. If the shutdown continues, they, too, may be forced to make difficult choices that involve calling in sick so they can take short-term jobs to make up for their missed government paychecks.
We're operating with at least 380,000 fewer government employees who are furloughed because of the shutdown. They're not on "strike," as President Trump mistakenly said. Instead, they are not authorized to work while the shutdown lasts. This means that crucial jobs that could directly impact Americans' security are on hold, indefinitely.
For example, Treasury Department investigations have slowed because of the shutdown. If we can't properly investigate illegal financial sector activities, our enemies may think now is a prime time to ramp up illicit transactions and undermine US national security.
Treasury's Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence is operating in a reduced capacity, which limits its ability to produce and share analysis on terrorist threats with members of the law enforcement community and financial sector, and to handle incoming inquiries.
Important positions performed by State Department personnel, including roles overseas, have already taken a hit.
And our ability to communicate -- including via social media -- with Americans around the world has been impacted. While a shuttered social media account might not seem like a big deal, consider this: The Twitter account for the US Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia was suspended because of the shutdown, which impacted the government's ability to communicate with American citizens during the December 23 tsunami that killed more than 200 people. When the world remains on edge about the President's global policies, an information blackout risks further escalating tensions.
Recruitment and retention
Most federal workers don't embark on a career in public service for the monetary rewards. Federal wages are governed by a set pay scale, and there's a ceiling on how much a federal employee can make. Becoming a federal employee, however, has historically represented a steady paycheck and benefits.
But with paychecks on hold because of the shutdown, threats that it could last for years and an executive order freezing federal wages next year -- the costs of remaining a federal employee may start outweighing the benefits. Public servants want to serve their country by working for the government, but it's not charity work. And the longer the shutdown drags on and the more their hardships are politicized, federal employees might start considering changing careers and moving into the private sector, where companies are increasingly having difficulty finding qualified job candidates.
Plus, recruitment into the federal workforce may soon be affected. As the government tries to hire more employees into key national security agencies hit by the shutdown -- including DHS, Treasury and State -- it's unlikely that they'll have much success recruiting for positions when the question of compensation inevitably pops up.
From a security perspective, the best course of action is to end the shutdown. In the meantime, expressing credible sympathy for those affected, rather than saying they will adjust to working for free, could avoid more hits to morale. While lawmakers and several senior Presidential political appointees still get paid during the shutdown, hundreds of thousands of Americans (plus their families and the businesses they spend money with) are in dire straits.
We're also assessing other key natural security stories:
Music to our allies' ears: The State Department, as well as National Security Adviser John Bolton, have made statements regarding the US presence in Syria that differ significantly from Trump's. In one State Department briefing, a senior official said, "We are not going anywhere." Bolton also said that we could leave troops on the ground in Syria. Both these statements -- while likely music to our allies' ears -- stand in sharp contrast to the full withdrawal that the White House reportedly ordered.
These mixed messages should be curtailed if Trump want to send a message of cohesion. While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in the Middle East this week, coordination could be key. If Trump and Pompeo read from the same sheet of music, Trump could start to signal that he and his team take the time to coordinate on policy. This could help offset the idea that Trump's team doesn't speak for him.
Putin's pawn: Paul Whelan, a discharged US Marines reservist who served two tours in Iraq, remains in Russian detention. Despite Russian claims that he was conducting espionage, Whelan's brother says he was there for a wedding. And the Whelan family continues to maintain his innocence. Regardless, we should expect Russian operatives to continue spreading misinformation about who he is and what he did. Because the Kremlin controls so much of Russian media, we should question the local reporting on Whelan. Russian authorities may be angling for a "swap" -- an exchange of Whelan for Maria Butina, who pleaded guilty last month to conspiring to act as an agent for the Kremlin without registering in the United States.
This is not a narrative we should support. Butina is a self-proclaimed foreign agent who has been afforded a lawyer, due process and security while in detention. We have no indication that Whelan will get any of the same, as Russia has a horrific record on prisoner abuse. While Whelan may be Russia's newest pawn, we should not allow Putin and his minions to draw false equivalencies between him and Butina.