WASHINGTON — Thousands of intelligence officers could soon face dismissal for failing to comply with the US government’s vaccine mandate, prompting some Republican lawmakers to worry about furloughing staff from agencies critical to national security.
Many intelligence agencies did not have at least 20% of their staff vaccinated by the end of October, said Utah Republican US Representative Chris Stewart, who is a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
CIA Director William Burns publicly disclosed last week that 97% of agency officials have been vaccinated. The National Reconnaissance Office, which operates US spy satellites, has vaccinated more than 90% of its staff.
But Stewart said some agencies in the 18-member intelligence community did not have vaccinations for up to 40% of their workforce. He cited information that the administration has provided to the committee but not publicly released. He declined to identify the agencies because full information on vaccination rates was classified.
While many will be vaccinated for civilian workers before the administration’s November 22 deadline, resistance to the mandate could leave key agencies responsible for national security without some personnel. Intelligence officers are particularly difficult to replace because of the highly specialized tasks they perform and the difficulties of completing security clearance checks.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined several requests to provide statistics for the intelligence community. The office also would not specify what contingency plans are in place in case officers are fired for not following the mandate.
Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines declined to disclose what percentage of staff were vaccinated at a hearing last week, but added, “We’re not anticipating that this will be an issue for the mission.”
The vaccination rates provided by Stewart are higher than for most of the general US population. About 70% of American adults are fully vaccinated and 80% have received at least one dose of the vaccine. The intelligence community has an estimated 100,000 employees.
Stewart called on the administration to approve more exemptions for people on medical, religious and other grounds, and to delay any termination of intelligence officers.
“My question is, what is the impact on national security if we do this?” Stewart said. “You’re potentially firing thousands of people in a single day. And it’s not like you put ads on Craigslist and have people apply by Thursday.”
House Intelligence Committee Democrats say they are confident the immunization mandate will pose no problem to the intelligence community. Colorado Democrat Representative Jason Crowe said the agencies were doing “very well” and that getting vaccinated was a sign of an employee’s readiness.
“If someone is unwilling to do the work necessary to protect their own health and the health of their unit, it really calls into question their ability to perform the task effectively,” Crowe said in an interview.
President Joe Biden has issued several mandates to boost vaccination rates in the US affecting federal workers, contractors and health care workers. The White House has credited those mandates with raising vaccination rates and reducing deaths from a pandemic that has killed more than 750,000 people in the US and 5 million worldwide.
Federal regulators and independent health experts have certified that available vaccines are safe. A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that from April to July, unvaccinated people were 10 times more likely to be hospitalized and 11 times more likely to die from COVID-19 .
The mandate for vaccination has faced significant resistance, especially given the already tight market for businesses hiring workers. Some first responders have opposed the vaccine mandate as have labor unions, arguing that the mandate impacts on individual liberties.
The Biden administration classified the information provided to the Intelligence Committee on each of the nation’s 18 intelligence agencies, said Stewart, who generally noted that agencies more closely related to the military tend to report lower vaccination rates. Huh.
Several major agencies with large military components declined to provide their vaccination rates when asked by the Associated Press, including the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. The NGA, which produces intelligence from satellites and drones, said in a statement that it was working “to ensure that all members of the workforce understand the required process and documentation before the deadline”.
Stewart, a former Air Force pilot, has been vaccinated, but says he opposes the mandate as being intrusive and counterproductive.
“If you say, ‘You have to do this and we won’t consider any exceptions to this,’ that’s where you get people to dig in your heels,” he said.
Illinois Republican Representative Darin LaHood echoed Stewart’s concerns in a hearing last week and told agency leaders that the question of unvaccinated employees “affects you and all of us globally.”
Mark Warner, D-VA, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that he supported requiring vaccinations for federal employees. “We need to use every tool at our disposal to save lives and protect mission readiness,” Warner said.
Federal employees who are not vaccinated or who are not exempt by November 22 could face suspensions of 14 days or less, followed by possible dismissal. The General Services Administration has advised agencies that “the unique operating requirements of the agencies and the circumstances affecting a particular employee may warrant a departure from these guidelines if necessary.”
Steve Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the vaccine mandate was still relatively new and he expected the numbers to change before the administration’s cutoff.
Morrison said that since intelligence agencies work with widely unvaccinated staff, “they have to show some flexibility around margins without compromising basic strategy and goals.”
“Getting control of this pandemic in the United States needs to reach a high level of vaccine coverage,” Morrison said. “It’s a matter of national security.”