Broken Government

Published — December 10, 2008 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Poor retention of counterterrorism staff

The FBI and DHS has unusually high turnover rate in counterterrorism staff


Senior federal employees are leaving their jobs at abnormally high rates at agencies charged with fighting terrorism. At the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), senior-level employees left their jobs in 2005 and 2006 at a rate of 14.5 and 12.8 percent, respectively — double the average rate for such positions at all cabinet-level departments, according to the Government Accountability Office. The consolidation of 22 agencies under DHS is the biggest reorganization of the federal government since Harry Truman created the Department of Defense in 1947, and its growing pains are apparent. An internal survey that tracks federal employees’ satisfaction, the Federal Human Capital Survey, has measured low levels of job satisfaction at DHS since the department’s creation. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has also had trouble retaining staff for its counterterrorism operations. In 2007, the inspector general at the Department of Justice wrote that “the frequent rotations and turnover within its senior management ranks” is inhibiting the FBI’s transformation into an intelligence-gathering agency. A study by the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2008 found that the FBI needed to fill 20 percent of supervisory positions in the section at FBI headquarters that deals with al Qaeda-related cases. High attrition rates in crucial spots weaken organizational memory and effectiveness; these civil servants are on the front line of homeland security and need to be running at full throttle.

The results for the 2008 Federal Human Capital Survey are not yet available. A spokesman for the FBI responded to a request for comment by pointing to FBI Director Robert Mueller’s September 2008 testimony before Congress; Mueller said the FBI is expanding “career paths for intelligence analysts and intelligence special agents so that we can grow a highly skilled cadre of intelligence professionals.” Although the DHS press office did not respond to a request for comment, the department did conduct its own employee satisfaction survey in 2007, which showed “improvement over the 2006 survey.” “Ours is still a young department — the newest in the federal government — and as we mature and continue to resolve some natural growing pains, I expect employee morale and satisfaction will improve accordingly,” wrote Elaine C. Duke, the deputy under secretary for management.

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