The mere fact that a security clearance applicant has foreign contacts does not, standing alone, raise a security concern under the national adjudicative guidelines for security clearances. This policy is dictated by both common sense and pragmatism; if everyone is a potential threat, no one is.

Indeed, it would be difficult to staff the federal government if anyone with an uncle in Canada or a grandmother in the U.K. was disqualified from serving. The result is that the Guidelines ask, in part, if the foreign contacts in any particular case create a “heightened risk of foreign exploitation, inducement, manipulation, pressure, or coercion.”  A significant factor in reaching that determination is country where the contacts are located.

Whether a particular country constitutes a “heightened risk” is subject to widely varying interpretations. One of several benchmarks the adjudicative guidelines provide is whether the country at issue is associated with a risk of terrorism. Some federal agencies have run wild with this language, interpreting it to mean any country where terrorism exists. The problem is that we have terrorism here in the United States. Is it somehow less of a threat to national security when it happens here?

What the guidelines clearly mean is countries that engage in state-sponsored or sanctioned terrorism – places like Iran, for example. Unfortunately, applicants are stuck with an obvious misinterpretation until that misinterpretation is squashed internally as a matter of policy. In the meantime, the question becomes how else an applicant can know whether or not contacts in a particular foreign country will be deemed a “heightened risk.”

There are some obvious examples that don’t require much explanation. If you have ties in Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Cuba, or Venezuela, you’re in for an uphill battle. But there are also plenty of other countries we’ve seen deemed a “heightened risk” by various U.S. government agencies, and some of them may surprise you.

For example, Iraq and Afghanistan remain frequent fliers in our practice – we see a high number of military interpreters originally hailing from these countries – despite many years of U.S. efforts to liberate and democratize both countries.

Similarly, Pakistan and India remain common countries of concern, although the latter tends to be easier to mitigate.

Ukraine and anywhere else Russia or China is currently exerting significant influence (e.g. certain parts of Africa) will also be potentially problematic, although also often mitigatable.

Finally, many applicants are surprised to learn that South Korea and Israel are considered “heightened risk” countries despite being close U.S. allies. This is because both countries are known to have active espionage programs in place – even here in the U.S. – due to their respective geopolitical concerns.

There is no bright-line rule for determining whether a particular country does or does not present the requisite “heightened risk,” and the U.S. government has consistently refused to publish a list of such countries – probably for fear of upsetting the diplomatic apple cart.  Nonetheless, there is significant enough past precedent regarding those countries listed above that applicants with ties to them should expect some bumps in the road to obtaining or retaining a clearance. The good news is that, with the right strategy and an effective case presentation, the government’s concerns can often be mitigated and the clearance granted or retained.


This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation. 

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Sean M. Bigley retired from the practice of law in 2023, after a decade representing clients in the security clearance process. He was previously an investigator for the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (then-U.S. Office of Personnel Management) and served from 2020-2024 as a presidentially-appointed member of the National Security Education Board. For security clearance assistance, readers may wish to consider Attorney John Berry, who is available to advise and represent clients in all phases of the security clearance process, including pre-application counseling, denials, revocations, and appeals. Mr. Berry can be found at