WASHINGTON — The partial government shutdown is hampering the FBI’s ability to investigate and prosecute cyber criminals and to combat digital national security threats, current and former agents said Tuesday.
With the shutdown now in its second month, the vast majority of FBI agents are still on the job and working without pay. But many of the resources they need for cyber investigations are missing in action, the agents said — including money to pay for wiretaps, subpoenas and other tools that form the bedrock of most digital investigations.
In one case, an FBI cyber agent didn’t have money to pay two confidential informants who provide intelligence about cyber assaults by U.S. adversaries, according to a report released Tuesday by the FBI Agents Association. In another case, a cyber investigation was stymied because the agent in charge couldn’t coordinate with furloughed workers at another agency.
“These delays slow down our work to combat criminal activity on the [internet] and protect the American people,” that agent said, as quoted in the report. It featured testimonials from some of the 14,000 current and former agents the association represents about how the shutdown is affecting their operations and personal lives.
Many investigations into cybercriminal gangs, hacktivist groups and even nation state-backed hacking operations are probably on hold during the shutdown, edged out by investigations where lives might be more imminently at stake, said Austin Berglas, a former top cyber official in the bureau’s New York office.
“If the head of an office understands he’s got dwindling funds to support investigations, he’s going to devote resources to the top priorities of the bureau: terrorism and significant counterintelligence investigations,” Berglas said. “A massive botnet attack or a massive breach of credit card data is going to take a back seat to that.”
The association’s report details hard times across the bureau, ranging from counterterrorism sources who have gone mum because there’s no money to pay them to agents who had to back out of assisting local police investigating violent street gangs.
The funding impasse probably is hitting cyber investigations harder, however, because they tend to be more expensive than other operations, Berglas said.
That’s because they often rely on troves of court-ordered digital evidence held by multiple internet service providers and other tech companies, and the FBI has to compensate the companies for retrieving all those records. That can be a lot costlier than an agent tailing a drug dealer, he said.
The cyber divisions problems won’t end when the shutdown does.
The bureau will also face significant difficulty resuming cyber operations after weeks in limbo, said Anthony Ferrante, former chief of staff for the FBI’s cyber division. After the October 2014 shutdown, Ferrante said in an email, it took months before the bureau was processing cases at normal speed again.
“A longer shutdown could result in an even lengthier recovery time — and therefore greater exposure to threats at all levels of government,” said Ferrante, who now leads the cybersecurity practice at FTI Consulting.
That slowdown could be particularly damaging because the FBI is trying to meet an ambitious goal of “deterring, detecting, disrupting, and dismantling,” 8,400 computer crimes during the 2019 fiscal year. That’s about 1,000 more crimes than the bureau dealt with in 2018 — a year that didn’t include a weeks-long slowdown in operations.
The FBI declined to comment on whether the shutdown might affect that goal.
In the longer term, the shutdown could be a devastating blow to workforce morale and permanently impair the bureau’s ability to recruit top cyber talent. The Agents Association painted a bleak picture during a news conference of young agents unable to afford to feed their families and longer-serving agents delaying things including braces for children.
Berglas, an executive at the cybersecurity firm BlueVoyant, has fielded several recent calls from FBI cyber agents looking for private-sector jobs, he told me.
“Agents who are technically savvy and able to investigate very technical crimes are already wanted by the private sector at salaries that dwarf what they’re making at the bureau,” Berglas said. “Now, it’s been a month since the shutdown and they’ve already missed a paycheck and they’re often living paycheck to paycheck. That’s not just cruel, it’s a massive morale hit.”