SEOUL -- Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Pentagon is trying to reduce the number of civilian employees who were slated to be furloughed starting Tuesday and that some could eventually be called back to work even if the federal government shutdown persists.
Hagel said Defense Department lawyers were reviewing whether they could keep more people on the job than previously anticipated by declaring them essential to national security.
Of the department's 800,000 civilian workers, 400,000 are being furloughed. Hagel said he couldn't estimate how many people might be reclassified as essential or when they might be summoned back to work, but he called the effort a priority.
Government attorneys are checking "to see if there's any margin here or widening in the interpretation of the law," Hagel told reporters in South Korea, where he was traveling on a three-day visit. "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."
Given the size of the Defense Department, the Pentagon's legal review could have a significant impact. Of the estimated 800,000 federal employees furloughed Tuesday because of Congress's inability to keep the government fully funded, about half work for the Defense Department.
The shutdown does not affect the status of the country's 1.5 million active-duty uniformed military personnel, who were required to report for duty as usual.
Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, blasted Congress for failing to reach an agreement on how to pay for normal government operations. The shutdown, he said, was shaking allies' faith in the United States.
"It does cast a very significant pall over America's credibility with our allies," Hagel said. "It is nonsensical. It's completely irresponsible. It's needless. It didn't have to happen."
"It does have an effect on our relationships around the world, and it cuts straight to the obvious question: Can you rely on the United States as a reliable partner to fulfill its commitments to its allies?"
The shutdown won't force Hagel to cut short his week-long visit to Asia, which will also take him to Japan. Civilian federal employees traveling with the defense secretary have been declared exempt from the shutdown because they are supporting an overseas mission, Pentagon spokesman George Little said, but some could be furloughed when they return to the United States.