Security Clearance Attorney Sean M. Bigley represents clients worldwide in security clearance denials and revocations. He is a former investigator for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. For more information, please visit www.bigleylaw.com.
Whether you are a true citizen of the world – or just fancy yourself one – having foreign contacts and an active security clearance can be a real conundrum. Where is the line between xenophobia and a healthy level of suspicion over the true intentions of your foreign friends? Do you really have to cut non-Americans out of your life?
To start, consider this: State Department diplomats – people who meet plenty of foreign friends while stationed abroad – still manage to keep a security clearance. The answer to the second question is thus a resounding “no.” That being said, even State Department diplomats have to exercise a good security posture. Here are a few ways to do that:
“I Don’t Know” Is Sometimes the Best Answer on Your SF-86
This may seem obvious to seasoned security clearance holders, but I frequently see first time applicants do things like email all their foreign contacts and ask for information requested on the SF-86. Nothing says “intelligence targeting” quite like that, yet people who aren’t in a counter-intelligence mindset may genuinely not have considered the risk. You’re not going to get denied a security clearance because you don’t have the address or employer name of a foreign contact, but you can create major problems for yourself by announcing your classified information access to these individuals.
It’s a Numbers Game
There is a security difference between official capacity foreign contacts and those made on a personal level. If you happen to be in a position that requires numerous official foreign contacts, the government isn’t going to deny you a clearance based upon something the government asked you to do. But personal (and especially romantic) connections with foreign nationals create more of a risk of compromise. The reality is that it is generally easier for foreign intelligence agents to exploit people who consider them personal friends or romantic interests than it is to exploit purely official contacts. Take a hard look at your personal foreign contacts and consider cutting ties with those whom you have a more passive or tangential relationship (i.e. the social media friends you won’t really miss). Ultimately, foreign contacts are a numbers game: the more you have, the higher likelihood one of them is in a government watch list or intelligence database.
Be Particularly Cautious of Friends from “Red Flag” Countries
The government does maintain a list of countries known to be actively engaged in espionage against the United States. Perhaps obviously, some of the frequent fliers are China, Russia, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, Pakistan, and North Korea. If you happen to have friends in (or from) any of these countries, take a particularly hard look at the value of the relationship – and be especially wary of undue interest in your work. That’s not to say that there aren’t good people from all these countries – there certainly are – but listing foreign contacts from any of these destinations on your SF-86 means singling yourself out for extra scrutiny.
Security Reporting Can Be a Good Thing
Many clients I work with are under the impression that reporting something like suspicious behavior from a foreign contact puts the reporting security clearance holder under the microscope. In actuality, reporting suspicious behavior can be a good thing in the event that your foreign contacts ever become cause for security clearance problems. Showing that you have reported suspicious behavior in the past (and thus know how to recognize it and appropriately respond) goes a long way toward mitigating concerns over the nature of your other foreign contacts.
As you can see, a little common sense and forward thinking goes a long way when it comes to juggling foreign contacts and your security clearance. You don’t have to be paranoid, just err on the side of caution.
This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation.