Employees at one of the most secretive parts of the American government have been forced to return to their offices, leading to widespread concerns about their exposure to Covid-19.
Tensions inside the National Security Agency (NSA) – which is responsible for eavesdropping and digital espionage – boiled over last week, leading to an emergency meeting at the agency on Wednesday to address complaints, according to inside sources.
The meeting followed employees posting frequently on internal message boards about their frustrations over the pandemic and the agency’s handling of it.
The NSA, like other intelligence agencies, has returned to near full capacity working in the office, using increased shift work and other safety precautions, reports the AP.
The tensions at NSA reflect divisions within government as it adapts to the pandemic. Some federal agencies are allowing their employees to work from home indefinitely, but agencies working on highly secret issues have less flexibility, and the NSA deals with some of the most highly classified programmes in government.
Unlike many government offices, intelligence work often needs to be done in special locations which are protected from outside eavesdropping. Allowing intelligence employees to work outside secure government offices raises concerns about the security of home offices for even routine communications among undercover intelligence officers and their handlers.
Many federal employees have put in for retirement, if they are eligible, due to the risks of the pandemic and their unhappiness at having to go back to the office.
Over at the FBI, another agency deeply involved in classified intelligence work, employees are struggling with the fact that they are running low on administrative leave after many people used it in the spring.
“There have been some Covid-19 exposure scares that sent people home as well, which makes them feel vulnerable,” said one former intelligence officer. “Everyone from street agents to senior officials is feeling stressed out.”