It didn’t take long after the start of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars for U.S. military commanders in both countries to discover the necessity of recruiting local linguists and cultural advisers. They didn’t have to look far. Despite the serious risks to themselves and their families, hundreds of young Afghan and Iraqi men rushed to volunteer.

The contributions of these young men – some still just teenagers – were vital to the war efforts. In return, the opportunity to immigrate to the United States through special visa programs was granted to many of these volunteers by our government.

A good number of former interpreters and cultural advisers have since settled comfortably into new lives in the U.S. They’ve obtained U.S. citizenship, married, had children, purchased homes, and integrated into the fabric of their communities. Yet for various reasons – patriotism, adventure, or earning potential – a significant percentage volunteer to return to their birth countries and once again serve alongside U.S. troops.

In doing so, many of these folks find that a security clearance is now a job requirement for the same position they held previously without a clearance. And because they often have family members still living in Iraq or Afghanistan or other ties (financial, social, etc.) to their birth country, obtaining a security clearance isn’t always easy.

That reality can be a slap in the face to someone who has risked his life repeatedly, sometimes for years on end, for this country.  I’ve had the privilege of representing numerous foreign-born linguists and cultural advisers in security clearance cases denial cases, and the pained question I get from the clients is always the same:

“Why wasn’t I considered a security risk previously – when I was actually living in (insert country) – but now that I’m a U.S. citizen-resident my family members in (insert country) are viewed as a problem?”

I wish I had a better answer than the truth, which is that someone in the bureaucracy arbitrarily decided to recategorize a position sensitivity without ever stopping to think about the fact that virtually anyone who has the necessary language skills or cultural competency is going to have family members and potentially other ties in the relevant country.

The irony is that if anyone has demonstrated his or her loyalty to the United States it is someone who risked their life for this country in war. Most security clearance review authorities – for example, Administrative Judges in the Defense Office of Hearings and Appeals (DOHA) – understand this, and thus many linguists and cultural advisers can ultimately win their cases.  Unfortunately, there is time, cost, and stress involved in getting to that point.

Absent unusual circumstances, linguists and cultural advisers who have already risked their lives for our country should not be treated like the run-of-the-mill foreign influence case by personnel security officials. For now, though, most foreign-born linguists and cultural advisers applying for a security clearance should anticipate some hurdles and prepare themselves accordingly. A competent security clearance attorney can be a valuable asset in helping prepare an effective case for mitigation of any foreign ties and in bridging cultural divides in presentation of the linguist/cultural adviser’s case. In addition, linguists/cultural advisers should take care to save all evidence of their prior service with U.S. Armed Forces, including certificates of appreciation, commendations, and the names and contact information of military leaders they served. Such evidence can make a real difference in challenging an initially unfavorable security clearance decision.


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

Related News

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