WASHINGTON (AP) – Thousands of intelligence officers may soon face layoffs for failing to comply with US government vaccination requirements, prompting some Republican lawmakers to raise concerns about firing employees from agencies critical to national security.
As of the end of October, at least 20% of employees were not vaccinated by several intelligence agencies as of the end of October, according to US spokesman Chris Stewart, a Utah Republican who is a member of the House Intelligence Committee. Some agencies in the 18-member intelligence community have not vaccinated up to 40% of their employees, Stewart said, citing information the administration provided to the committee but did not release. He declined to name the agencies because the full information on vaccination rates was classified.
While many people are likely to still get vaccinated before the administration’s November 22 deadline for civilian workers, resistance to the mandate could leave major national security agencies without some personnel. Intelligence officers are particularly difficult to replace because of the highly specialized work they do and the difficulty of going through security clearance checks.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has denied several requests for numbers to the intelligence community. The office also did not disclose what contingency plans exist in the event officers are fired from their jobs for non-compliance with the mandate.
National Intelligence Director Avril Haynes declined to reveal at a hearing last week what percentage of employees had been vaccinated, but said “we do not expect this to be a problem for the mission.” The intelligence community has approximately 100,000 employees.
The vaccination rates provided by Stewart are generally higher than those of the general US population. About 70% of American adults are fully vaccinated, and 80% have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
Stewart urged the administration to approve more exemptions for people for medical, religious and other reasons and to postpone the layoffs of intelligence personnel.
“My question is, how will this affect national security?” Stewart said. “You are potentially firing thousands of people on the same day. And that doesn’t mean you’re posting an ad on Craigslist and getting people to apply by Thursday. “
President Joe Biden has issued several executive orders to increase the number of vaccinations in the United States affecting federal employees, contractors, and healthcare providers. The White House has credited these mandates with improving vaccination rates and reducing deaths from the pandemic, which has killed more than 750,000 people in the United States and 5 million worldwide.
Federal regulators and independent health experts have confirmed that the vaccines available are safe. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that between April and July, unvaccinated people were 10 times more likely to be hospitalized than vaccinated people and 11 times more likely to die from COVID-19.
Vaccine mandates have faced significant resistance, especially given the already limited market for businesses looking to hire workers. Some emergency responders have resisted vaccine prescriptions, as have workers’ unions, arguing that the prescriptions infringe on personal freedom.
CIA Director William Burns publicly announced last week that 97% of agency employees had been vaccinated. The National Intelligence Agency, which operates American spy satellites, has vaccinated more than 90% of its employees.
Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee say they are confident the vaccination mandate will not cause problems for the intelligence community. Rep. Jason Crowe, a Democrat from Colorado, said the agencies are doing “well” and that vaccinations are a sign of employee readiness.
“If someone is unwilling to do what is necessary to protect their health and the health of their unit, it effectively calls into question their ability to do their job effectively,” Crowe said in an interview.
The Biden administration provided the intelligence committee with classified information about each of the country’s 18 intelligence agencies, Stewart said, noting in general that agencies more closely associated with the military tend to report lower vaccination rates.
Several large agencies with large military components declined to provide vaccination data 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 reconnaissance data from satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles, said in a statement that it is “working to ensure that all employees understand the process and the required documentation” before the deadline.
Stewart, a former Air Force pilot, was vaccinated but said he opposed the sanctions as intrusive and counterproductive.
“If you say, ‘You have to do this, and we will not consider any exceptions,’ you will have people hitting their heels,” he said.
Rep. Darin Lahoud, a Republican from Illinois, echoed Stewart’s concerns at a hearing last week and told agency executives that the issue of unvaccinated employees “affects all of you and us around the world.”
Senator Mark Warner, Virginia, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that he supports the introduction of vaccinations for federal employees. “We must use every tool at our disposal to save lives and prepare for the mission,” Warner said.
Federal employees who are not vaccinated or who have not received an exemption by November 22 can be suspended from work for 14 days or less and then be fired. The General Services Administration advised the agencies that “the agency’s unique operational needs and circumstances affecting a particular employee may require derogation from these rules if necessary.”
Steve Morrison, director of the Center for Global Health Policy at the Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the vaccine mandate was still relatively new and he expected the numbers to change before the administration closed.
Morrison said that because intelligence agencies work extensively with unvaccinated employees, “they will have to show some flexibility within borders without compromising on basic strategy and goals.”
“To control this pandemic in the United States, much higher vaccination coverage needs to be achieved,” Morrison said. “This is a national security issue.”