National security experts wanted. Those who have “close relationships with foreign nationals” need not apply.

Does befriending non-Americans harm one’s chances for security clearance?

Earlier today, someone from the federal government came to ask me some questions about a former student who had applied for a job requiring security clearance. The questions seemed to be standard ones off a form.

One question was (more or less) “Does [applicant] to your knowledge have close relationships with foreign nationals?” My honest answer was, prettied up for language, “yes, I think so, given that she was born in another country and has probably not disowned her entire family. Besides, there are a great many foreign students in her graduate program and I assume she treated them more like colleagues and friends than like pariahs.” Then, to avoid harming the student’s chances, I said much the same thing translated from the Snark.

Can anybody help me out here? I have at least three questions: (1) Has this question always been asked of people seeking clearance, or was it a McCarthy-era innovation? (2) Are people regularly denied clearance solely because too many of their friends are foreigners of a nationality we distrust (and if so, has anybody thought about how idiotic that is)? (3) Do other countries ask similar questions? I can’t imagine anybody in France being asked whether he or she suspiciously had friends in Belgium or Germany—yet I doubt many French security types spy for Belgium as a result.

The whole line of questioning strikes me as antediluvian in a complex and globalizing world in which close contact with non-Americans is becoming both ubiquitous among talented people in urban centers—especially among those with advanced degrees—and crucial to solving our problems of national security (and everything else). Several questions regarding the applicant’s loyalty or disloyalty to the United States were asked separately in the interview, and to my mind legitimately. Is there any conceivable rationale for keeping the question that’s solely about knowing too many fer-ners?

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

21 thoughts on “National security experts wanted. Those who have “close relationships with foreign nationals” need not apply.”

  1. They probably asked the applicant to list any “close relationships with foreign nationals”. Then they do the background check to see if there were any names omitted from that list.

  2. Back in the 1980s I worked with a guy who failed to get a security clearance (and was thus fired) based — so he said — on the fact that he had lived in South Africa for several years. At least, he inferred this, since they don’t always tell people WHY their clearance was denied.

    Also, it depends on the agency. For the intelligence agencies, all employees are required to report all sustained contact with foreign nationals. If you were to meet the same foreigner twice in a year at a party, say, you would have to report that. I guess that a similar vetting is done before hiring.

    When I worked at a national lab, the feeling was that DOE Q clearances were most likely to be obtained by Mormons, since they didn’t travel overseas much (except for missionary work) and were generally thought to be “clean cut”. People who had traveled a lot overseas, or who had relatives in foreign countries, usually had their clearances held up for a long time (1-3 years).

  3. 1.) That particular question has been asked for a long time. At least since the mid 80’s that I know of.
    2.) No, not necessarily denied a clearance. It depends on the nature of the relationship (the type of personal bond) and the country they are from. Close personal relationships with persons from a country with a strategic interest in knowing military secrets would naturally be most suspect. Not solely because it may imply a dual loyalty of some kind, but also because that other person’s safety and well being could be put at risk to extort information from a person with a clearance.
    3.) Yes, I think they do.

  4. You may be conceding too much in agreeing that questions regarding the applicant’s loyalty or disloyalty to the United States are legitimate. Questioning whether you believe that the applicant might be inclined to commit treason would be legitimate, but, beyond that, what does loyalty or disloyalty mean? Supporting administration policies? Assuming that the applicant would not commit treason, then he’d either do his job well or not do his job well.

  5. I had a friend back in the day (about 1980) who went to work as a language expert at a large institution housed at Ft. Meade. That we had talked about Michael Harrington’s book on global poverty, The Vast Majority, gave her some trouble with her security clearance. She was cleared, but at that moment I knew I was forever locked out of such places. Which is fine with me.

  6. It depends on the job, the agency, and the nature of the information. For every level of clearance, “close and continuing contact” with a foreign national is something that the government wants to know about. It’s a risk factor for potential feelings of ideological ties to another country, which is in turn a major factor in many instances of espionage.

    For higher clearances, the acceptable level of foreign influence gets lower and lower. For example, I had to explain in great detail how it came to be that a member of my family is a US Citizen born abroad. When I went to work for another program in a job at the same security level, but with a different agency, the bar was even lower. There are some pretty strict rules about visiting a whole list of foreign countries, and all foreign travel (even personal travel to friendly nations) has to be requested and approved well in advance.

  7. Can’t speak to (1) and (3), but I know several people who came close to being denied or were denied clearance based on being associated with too many foreigners. I know one person who was denied clearance for having been out of the country for too much time over some period of time (like 3 1/2 out of 4 years, or something like that). Not all of these make any sense.

  8. Leaving aside the details of security clearance policies, the broader point is that the US govt, like US society more broadly, has trouble with the concept that there are foreign countries. Consider the tax code: the US is the only country in the world that taxes its citizens wherever they live. The only one. And not just citizens – green card holders have to keep paying US taxes after they move abroad, and even have to pay for ten years after they give up their green card under certain conditions.

  9. Basilisc says:
    “Leaving aside the details of security clearance policies, the broader point is that the US govt, like US society more broadly, has trouble with the concept that there are foreign countries. Consider the tax code: …”

    Or the US is a country in which a lot of people make a lot of money, and then try to avoid paying taxes on it. It’s not the only one, but it might in this case have a better policy.

  10. My vicarious experience from clearance processes for family and friends is that it’s partly about risk and mostly about veracity. Clearances can be delayed if someone has spent a lot of time abroad, simply because the basic checking process (did they live at the addresses they said they did, did they leave any bad debts or warrants?) is much more difficult. But even noncurrent illegal drug use isn’t a necessary bar to clearance; lying about it generally is.

  11. Um, Barry, let me clarify something for you.

    Countries BESIDES THE UNITED STATES levy income taxes on the people living in them. I know it’s surprising, but it’s true.

    Here’s something else incredible, unbelievable, but actually true: Americans living in those countries HAVE TO PAY INCOME TAX IN THE COUNTRY WHERE THEY LIVE.

    I know, it’s mindblowing, isn’t it? But it’s true. So an American living in a foreign country has to pay taxes to the US (of course), but also to ANOTHER COUNTRY. Just like all of the other people who live in that country. And, it may shock you to hear this, but there are in fact ALMOST 200 COUNTRIES in the world that are not the United States of America.

    (The IRS grants a tax credit for foreign taxes paid, but the formula is designed to be disadvantageous to Americans living abroad – see this publication for details if you really, really want to know: http://www.irs.gov/instructions/i1116/index.html. But I adivse you to wait until you get over the shock at discovering that everyone, no matter where they live, has to pay taxes to the government of the place they live: )

  12. Henry: “loyalty” was a shorthand for questions regarding something probably more accurately called conspiracy. As far as I remember, the questions were all about whether the person had affiliations with terrorist groups or felt like overthrowing the government (legitimate questions for intelligence jobs in my book; we’re not talking a job for the FDA). I wasn’t asked about the student’s politics, her support or non-support for the administration, or whether she had criticized the government. And if I had been asked I would have said “none of your goddamn business.”

    Everyone else: very discouraging responses. It sounds as if we’re keeping people who know the most about the world out of the highest reaches of the foreign policy apparatus when we should be begging them to come in.

  13. What MRD said. Not grounds for denial of clearance but triggers deeper examination of one’s background & association with these people. Of course disclosed relationships with foreign nationals can invariably be quickly dismissed in terms of relevance for granting a security clearance. Aldrich Ames’ foreign-born wife & her family were not a factor in his treason; it was the foreign nationals of the KGB persuasion, not disclosed, that were the problem.

  14. Andrew Sabl says:

    “Everyone else: very discouraging responses. It sounds as if we’re keeping people who know the most about the world out of the highest reaches of the foreign policy apparatus when we should be begging them to come in.”

    Makes sense – for example, a Reich Commissioner for Jewish affairs shouldn’t personally know many Jews.

  15. To your question 3, when I applied for a job as an analyst with MI6 in the UK, my application was automatically rejected because I had recently lived in a foreign country. The fact that the country in question was the utterly harmless Netherlands, and the concept that someone who has lived abroad (barely, in my case) may just possible have better insights into the devious foreign mind, did not seem to enter into the equation.
    They didn’t ask about foreign friends though, in the initial application.

  16. Wasn’t there an CIA agent in the Middle East who left for journalism because the contact rules made talking to real people in the bazaars more or less impossible? Can’t trace the story on Google though.

  17. There’s a ratchet effect going on here. Some or excessive foreign connections are a bar to clearance for the same reason that we have to take our shoes off in airports. Just as no-one wants to be the person whose relaxation of the rules could be said to have led to a terrorist incident, so no-one wants to be the person whose relaxation of the rules could be said to have led to a spy gaining clearance. Everyone knows that occasionally a spy will get a clearance. The person granting that clearance and the person who set the rules under which the clearance was granted need to be able to say, “who could have known?” without the answer being, “your predecessor.”

  18. Andrew: my vicarious experience suggests you are misinterpreting. (And remember, people will almost never be told why they didn’t receive a clearance, even if someone ostensibly tells them.) Of the two members of my family with pretty high clearances, one had a brother, sister, dozens of cousins, tens or hundreds of friends and acquaintances being foreign nationals, including some behind the then iron curtain. Other one married to a foreign national, even more cousins and so forth. Obviously everyone’s mileage differs, and some organizations take a different attitude toward foreign contacts than others.

  19. 1. I think it came about due to the espionage trials after WW2. Many of the “atom bomb spies” were of foreign birth, and maintained close relations with family. Reading about the Duquesne Spy Ring will show that these were factor in espionage long before McCarthy waved his blank sheet of paper.

    2. Not really. If you have lots of time (hint: you won’t after you get started reading them, ‘cuz it is like trying to eat *one* potato chip), you can find plenty of cases of clearances being denied because the person seeking clearance had inordinate relations even with very friendly countries such as the Philippines (usually these cases involve owning land over there, having bank accounts there, and supporting the spouse’s family). Financial misconduct and drug use are far more common in rejections. You can find folks with family in Iran getting clearances, while people maintaining dual passports (even with England and Ireland) getting denied. One should note that Iran does not allow for people to renounce their Iranian citizenship, which is why many get in enough legal trouble to get in the news when going back to visit relatives.

    Folks who have been denied clearances – who then appeal their denials – end up with their cases (names removed) posted at:
    http://www.dod.gov/dodgc/doha/industrial/

    3. I can’t speak to the clearance vetting procedures of other countries.

    If you were ever a fan of espionage stories (my favorite guy wrote under the pen-name of Viktor Suvorov), you will find a number of very common themes in enticing people to spy for others. Reading about the cases of Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen and the “Cambridge Five” will illustrate many of these common themes. The questions being asked are not relics of the McCarthy era, rather they are the relics of uncovering what went wrong before, and using those to try to prevent future misdeeds. In engineering, we call that feedback.

  20. Before i even read the rest of this thing, u can be black and dominican, white and dominican, people have no idea that race color nationality and ethnicity are all entirely separate things, race is kinda made bs but, his color is black, his race is what they call it negroid? unless they updated that term and his ethnicity is DR, i assume he was born there so his nationality would be the same

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