Some people just make friends more easily on their travels. While it is good to have friends in far off lands who can share their customs and even show you the sights during your visits, such contacts can also be a problem for security clearance holders.
Foreign Contacts Are a Global Issue
Foreign contacts and security clearance issues don’t just affect the U.S. Earlier this week, Jon Nicolaisen, deputy governor of Norges Bank, was forced to resign. Nicolaisen, whose responsibilities included matters related to world’s largest sovereign wealth fund and oversaw the 10.9 trillion kroner ($1.25 trillion) Norwegian Government Pension Fund Global, was unable to renew his security clearance from the Norwegian Civil Security Clearance Authority.
The reason was quite personal actually – his wife is a Chinese citizen and resides in China, Pensions & Investments reported. The clearance authority determined that there were actually no circumstances that gave rise to doubt about Mr. Nicolaisen’s suitability for obtaining a security clearance, but it is a form of “guilt by association.”
Spotting the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
In today’s globally connected world of multinational corporations, it is easy to build up a network of foreign contacts. However, some could be a proverbial “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” as noted this week when the news broke that a suspected Chinese intelligence operative had developed extensive ties with local and national politicians including a U.S. congressman.
U.S. officials believe the alleged operation was run by China’s main civilian spy agency between 2011 and 2015. The goal of the intelligence operation was to gain access to and influence within U.S. political circles.
The Chinese national, Fang Fang also known by Christine Fang, reportedly targeted up-and-coming local politicians in the San Francisco Bay Area as well as others across the country. The targets had one thing in common – they had the potential to make it big on the national stage. Fang gained access through campaign fundraising, extensive networking, personal charisma, and even romantic/sexual relationships.
As a “honeypot,” Fang may have had such relationships with at least two Midwestern mayors and was able to gain proximity to their political power.
Officials do not believe she had received or passed on classified information, but was still able to gain private unclassified information that included habits, schedules, and even rumors. That sort of information is routinely gathered and could be used by foreign intelligence agencies at a later time.
Reportedly the most significant targets of Fang’s efforts involved Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), who briefly ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2019. Fang didn’t donate to Swalwell’s campaign, but she had regularly attended Bay Area and political events, and also helped with fundraising for candidates.
Foreign Influence Reporting in Election Act
As allegations of political candidates having ties to foreign governments has been on the rise, last year Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia) introduced a bill that would require political campaigns to require political candidates to report foreign attempts to influence U.S. elections to the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
Warner’s bill, the Foreign Influence Reporting in Election Act, called for campaigns to have a week to report communications with foreign nations who try to make campaign donations or work with the campaign.
While it passed the Senate and House, a measure requiring presidential campaigns to report any attempts by foreign entities was stripped by the Senate as a condition of passing the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in June.
The Logan Act
Since practically the founding of the republic, there has been the Logan Act – enacted by the 5th United States Congress – a federal law that criminalizes negotiation by unauthorized American citizens with foreign governments having a dispute with the United States.
While it was to prevent unauthorized negotiations from undermining the government’s position, former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn ran afoul of the statute in December 2016 when he urged Russia to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
When in Doubt, Report Foreign Contact
The easiest way to avoid trouble is to disclose any and all foreign contacts – and as with many aspects of the federal government, there is a form for that!
Security Clearance holders and applicants can self-report foreign contacts that are “close and/or continuing” on the SF-86 form. It asks:
“Do you have, or have you had, close and/or continuing contact with a foreign national within the last seven (7) years with whom you, or your spouse, or legally recognized civil union/domestic partner, or cohabitant are bound by affection, influence, common interests, and/or obligation?”
What constitutes that tone of affection or influence still remains subjective, but it remains a good frame of reference on the type of relationships that are considered reportable.