If you are one of those cleared government employees working or furloughed who didn’t receive their paycheck due to the congressional-presidential squabble causing the government shutdown, you are feeling the pain. Not quite the “Happy New Year” you had envisioned.

If you are a hostile intelligence service human intelligence (HUMINT) targeting officer you are hoping this situation lasts a long time and has a multitude of unintended consequences affecting the cleared government employee population.

Like ivory soap, 99.44 percent of the U.S. cleared employee population is true blue, never going to be compromised, and knows what to do if a foreign intelligence service reaches out and touches them. The remaining .56 percent, history tells us, are vulnerable.

Office of Personnel Management (OPM)

Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the same office that in 2015 was targeted by the Chinese intelligence and saw millions of background investigation files go out the door, provided two sample letters for government employees to use with their creditors. OPM notes that prior to sending a letter, you reach out and make sure you have the identify of the individual to whom you should address the letter. 

What OPM did not share is whether or not their IT department was operating at full strength, or if the government shutdown means that their IT staff is operating at reduced strength and data is once again at risk.

Let’s not forget, during the government shutdown in the fall of 2013 OPM’s IT manuals went missing – an intelligence bonanza for the thief.  The theft was described at that time as sufficient that it “would give you enough information that you could learn about the platform, the infrastructure of our system,” said then OPM Chief Information Officer Donna Seymour.

And with our 20/20 hindsight we see the stage was set for the 2015 OPM data breach.

Deja vu: How the government shutdown makes employees vulnerable

One of the key counterintelligence conundrums is always who watches the watchers? And now the government shutdown has those responsible for the cleared personnel data stores either furloughed or working for an undetermined period of time without receiving their regularly scheduled pay.

Former FBI Special Agent James Harris, a highly respective cybersecurity expert observed, “The breach of OPM gave China an amazing treasure trove of credit information on government employees with access to sensitive information. Once that Pandora’s box was opened, every intelligence service on Earth would be interested in knowing which Americans are susceptible to financial pressure. Combine that with the info from DNC hack, social media, and hyper-polarized political environment, and you have the makings of a perfect storm for approaching angry and desperate cleared employees.”

Between the background check information and the details obtained through the hack of the various credit reporting agencies, hostile intelligence services are already putting together their targeting folios on each of us. The government shutdown and the potential economic strain placed on those same employees opens the door of opportunity.

Harris dryly noted, “The next Edward Snowden will be far easier to recruit now.”

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Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008).