Fact Check: Do IRS agents really outnumber G-men and spies?

A presidential candidate and a state lawmaker have claimed there are more IRS agents than there are FBI and CIA agents combined. It doesn't take too much cloak-and-dagger work to find this claim questionable.

Posted Updated
Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — When state lawmakers took up the issue of Syrian refugees earlier this week, Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, raised concerns about the federal government's ability to properly vet and keep track of those entering the United States from the war-torn country. In particular, the committee was focused on the concern that a terrorist might slip into the country under the guise of being a refugee.

"I read the other day that Washington has more IRS agents than we have agents in the CIA and FBI combined. So, if that is, indeed, the case, that will give you some idea where the priorities of the current administration has been over the last seven years," Steinburg told the Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations at the end of an all-day meeting.

"So, if that is, indeed, the case ..." That, my friends, is something akin to a dinner bell for your friendly, neighborhood fact-checker.

Asked where he got that figure for the number of Internal Revenue Service agents versus agents for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Central Intelligence Agency, Steinburg said he wasn't sure.

"I don't know where I heard it or read it, but it was in the last 24 or 36 hours before that meeting," he said. "I did ask (Public Safety) Secretary Frank Perry after I made my comments if, in fact, he had heard or knew if that assessment was accurate. He indicated he thought I was accurate."

Perry, a former FBI agent, attended the meeting.

Steinburg's original source appears to have been an interview that Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina gave on Fox News' "The Kelly File," which subsequently circulated around the Internet.

"Here's a startling fact, Megan. We have more IRS agents than we have FBI and CIA. Does that strike you as a misallocation of resources? Of course it is. We need to take this terror threat seriously," Fiorina said.

In context, both Steinburg and Fiorina are suggesting the federal government doesn't put enough effort and manpower into combating terrorist threats and is more focused on enforcing the tax code.

THE QUESTIONS: Do the numbers bear out Fiorina and Steinburg? Are there more IRS agents than FBI and CIA agents combined?
THE NUMBERS: The number of IRS "agents" and employees has been something of a political piñata over the years, getting whacked in debates over the Affordable Care Act as well as more generically on the campaign trail.
The IRS has about 69,800 full-time, year-round employees, according to spokesman Luis Garcia, although the total number of employees spikes seasonally. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen recently fixed the figure of total employees at about 85,000, which is consistent with budget figures.

However, not all of those employees are agents, and not all agents are what people might think of as law enforcement.

"When people think of government agents, they usually mean law enforcement, and our law enforcement group. IRS Criminal Investigations has 2,303 special agents," Garcia said.

Those are the sworn law enforcement officers who carry badges and guns for the agency.

There is another category of IRS revenue agents – hold the special – who are non-law-enforcement, tax-collecting personnel. The IRS has 10,600 revenue agents.

Garcia points out that the IRS workforce is responsible for processing 240 million tax returns and collecting roughly $3.1 trillion in revenue every year.

So, where does that stand vis-à-vis the FBI and CIA?

According to "Today's FBI: Facts and Figures 2013-2014," there are 13,907 FBI special agents. The agency had another 22,161 "professional staff," including intelligence analysts. Those numbers ticked down slightly over the subsequent year, according to an FBI spokeswoman. As of Aug. 31, 2015, the total FBI workforce was 35,116, with 13,255 active special agents.

So, if Fiorina was talking about actual law enforcement personnel, this statement falls apart right off the bat before looking at the CIA. Even if you pile together both IRS special agents and revenue agents, the combined 12,903 "IRS agents" doesn't match the FBI's 13,255 special agents.

It clings to a little bit of life if you disregard the fact that Fiorina specified "agents" and instead look at total number of employees, something we'll do below.

CLOAKS AND DAGGERS: So what about the CIA?
"Neither the number of employees nor the size of the Agency's budget can, at present, be publicly disclosed," reads a statement on the intelligence agency's website. That's also the response if you call up the CIA's headquarters in Langley, Va., and ask.
There is some help on this point from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked to The Washington Post the $52.6 billion "black budget" for fiscal year 2013, which details what the government spends on covert operations and intelligence gathering.

According to the Post's summary of that report, the CIA workforce grew from 17,000 a decade ago to about 21,575 as of 2013. The agency spent about $2.3 billion for human intelligence operations that year. Of that number, we don't know how many are field agents per se, but for this analysis, it doesn't matter.

The FBI and CIA are two of 16 intelligence-gathering agencies across the federal government, with 107,035 workers combined, according to the document leaked by Snowden. Those numbers wouldn't necessarily cover the variety of contractors who work for the intelligence community but aren't employees, strictly speaking.

BACKUP: Steinburg, as we noted above, couldn't say where he got the cite. Given that Fiorina's prominence in the news cycle, the citation more than likely traces back to her appearance on cable news.

Anna Epstein, spokeswoman for the Fiorina campaign, did not return an email Friday seeking backup for the candidate's statement.

This is the picture we use when a fact check finds a "moving violation."
THE CALL: Both Fiorina and Steinburg were trying to make a point about the nation's priorities and ability to protect U.S. citizens from threats, specifically any foreign terrorists who might pose as refugees to enter the country.

This fact check doesn't weigh in on that larger debate. Rather, we're interested in whether the comparison between the IRS and the FBI and the CIA holds up as a way to make that argument.

It doesn't.

If we're going to compare apples to apple, there are 2,303 IRS special agents with police powers. That's less than a fifth of the total number of FBI special agents. Even if you lump in "revenue agents," the number of IRS "agents" totals to 12,903, about 350 short of the most recently available FBI special agent numbers. While we don't know how many CIA agents there are, whatever the number it merely gilds the clandestine lily.

The most generous reading that Fiorina's remarks can be given is that she meant there were more IRS "employees" than in the FBI and CIA combined. In that case, the combined estimate of roughly 57,000 FBI and CIA employees would be less than 69,800 full-time, year-round IRS employees.

But that's not what Fiorina said, and if it was, she would have ignored the larger community of 16 intelligence-gathering agencies with 107,035 workers that includes the NSA, Defense Intelligence Agency and Department of Homeland Security. The covert intelligence budget is $52.6 billion before talking about what might be passed as part of Congress' more transparent spending bills, compared with the IRS' most recent annual allocation of $10.9 billion.

Should there be more FBI and CIA agents or fewer IRS workers? That sounds like a good topic for a presidential debate. What's not up for debate is that Fiorina's facts on this particular point – and by extension Steinburg's – don't add up.

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