By Barbara Starr
Even as furloughed civilian Defense Department workers streamed out of the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel began working half a world away to get all 400,000 furloughed personnel globally back to work.
“Hagel is looking to get as many people back to work as soon as he can,” a senior defense official told CNN on Tuesday.
Hagel, who is traveling in Asia, hinted to reporters about what exactly he has in mind and it centers around a law quickly passed on Monday to keep troops and some essential civilian workers paid.
“Our lawyers are now looking through the law that the president signed, along with the Department of Justice lawyers and (the White House budget office), to see if there's any margin here or widening in the interpretation of the law regarding exempt versus non-exempt civilians,” he said.
“Our lawyers believe that maybe we can expand the exempt status. We don't know if that's the case, but we are exploring that, so that we could cut back from the furloughs some of the civilians that had to leave,” Hagel added.
Defense Department lawyers are looking specifically at language in the legislation they believe allows the secretary to pay civilians and contractors who provide support to the active duty military, the official said.
Previous legal precedents only allowed civilians to be paid who engaged in essential work supporting military operations or providing essential safety and security services.
“If you are not essential in supporting the military, what are you doing at the Department of Defense?” the official said.
Hagel said he did not know the exact time frame on when Pentagon officials would have a sense of the legal terrain.
“But it's a priority that we have and that we're working on right now. And it's, in fact, the priority in our general counsel's office. I think that gives you, at least, a general assessment of where we are,” he said.