Foreign influence is one of the adjudicative guidelines that regularly creates issues for clearance applicants. It’s not just the applicant themselves, many fear how their relatives or family members could affect their clearance eligibility.


Sean Bigley (00:30):

Welcome back. You’re with Sean Bigley and Lindy Kaiser of clearance Our topic, this segment is Grandma wants to visit China. Am I screwed, Lindy? I don’t know about you. I’m appreciative as a former clearance holder that all my relatives live in the United States, it made things a lot easier in the application process, but I represented lots of clients over the years who that was not the case. They had relatives overseas or in this context they had relatives who lived here, but they wanted to go back to the homeland, so to speak, because they were aging and they wanted to see a relative one last time before they passed away or they wanted to visit some childhood friends, whatever the case may be. Sounds very innocuous. Oh, grandma wants to go back and visit the mother country, but that’s causing some heartburn for some clearance holders these days given world affairs and the state of international relations, particularly between the US and China, US and Russia, a couple of other countries. And so the question becomes, well to what extent is this going to come back on me? I can’t really control what my other relatives are going to do or not do. I guess we should probably start with talking about what the security clearance adjudicated guidelines actually speak to in this area. And so do you want to start by sharing a little bit about the foreign influence criteria?

Lindy Kyzer (01:49):

Yeah, well with foreign influence, the issue is if you’re going to have another foreign country be able to influence your behavior as you work for or support national security. So obviously country makes a big difference in this. China who has a clear and obvious intent to infiltrate the US and every means possible is going to be scrutinized more than a country like Australia or a five eyes partner or someone that the US has a close relationship with. Foreign travel is considered, I think foreign influence and foreign preference are all pretty much tied hand in hand. So I always say if you’re looking at foreign influence, look at foreign preference too because that relates because you want to look at, Hey, am I spending money overseas again? Have I traveled extensively? What are the ties that I have to another country versus ones that I have here?

I always tell folks it’s very specific in the policy that obtaining a security clearance is obtaining a security clearance for you. So we have a lot of folks who will either fail to apply or get them in much worse trouble, not want to disclose a relative because that relative still does have ties to a foreign country. Or we have the one guy who repeatedly lied about the fact that he had a brother who was in prison and just kept saying that that guy was not his brother. And you’re like, no, the government’s going to find out. So this is one where I say if you have a grandma and she’s going to go to China, you can’t necessarily control that. What the government is going to be concerned about or ask about is, Hey, when grandma gets back from China, is she going to move back in with you?

Or what is she bringing back from China? Or what is your relationship with your grandma in the sense that if she goes over there and then they do something, that’s why foreign influence becomes such a big issue and that’s why it is. So I think you gave me nothing to go off of other than that hot headline when we were talking topics, Sean. So from seeing that my whole thing is like that just opens up a whole secondary list of questions to say, yeah, that’s why the foreign influence preference is a factor because this has come up before. We have actual counterintelligence examples of how someone did have a relative and they were taken when they were overseas and that was used as leverage against the US-based clearance holder. And that’s why the government’s kind of going to want to know is if your grandma goes over there and it becomes an issue, you’re going to have to choose national security over that relative I would tell grandma to stay home, but I mean there’s a lot of factors at plague against, it’s going to depend on what agency you work for, what your job is, a lot of things.

Sean Bigley (04:16):

Yeah. First of all, I think it’s important for people to understand the nature of the government’s concern, which you pointed out rightly is if grandma gets held hostage by a foreign government or they put the squeeze on her and say, Hey, we’re going to harm you, or we’re going to confiscate some property that you own here, or whatever the case may be, unless your grandson or granddaughter does what we want them to do. And that’s true by the way, especially in cases where people live in that foreign country. But it’s also true or it can be true if people are visiting, does that increase the likelihood of susceptibility on the part of the clearance holder to that kind of pressure manipulation? And there are certainly cases where I think a reasonable objective person would look at it and say, yes, if your for example spouse is residing in a foreign country that’s hostile to the US government or they’re making frequent trips over there to visit an aging relative, it’s putting them in a position where they’re under the thumb of that foreign government and that could be used under the right circumstances against the clearance holder for pressure.

And that’s not a position that any clearance holder obviously wants to be in, but it’s certainly not a position that the US government wants, those who entrusts with access to classified information to be in. Obviously again, it’s difficult to prevent adult relatives from living their lives and doing what they’re going to do. And if there’s no legal reason why they can’t go to a certain country, all you can do is the clearance holder is ask and maybe beg and plead that they not do that. Now, there are scenarios where this may come to the government’s attention, it may not. If they’re living in a foreign country and they have to be reported, then that’s certainly something that’s listable on the SF 86 and would need to be reported to security. If they’re just visiting, they’re taking a trip and they don’t live with you and there’s nothing else there that would create kind of an immediate bond of close and continuing relationship, then not necessarily something that would come to the government’s attention.

And even if it is somebody who you have a close and continuing relationship, generally it’s not reportable that that person has gone overseas unless there are some sort of counterintelligence indicators that you could become aware of. So grandma comes back from China and she says to you, grandson, I’m so sorry to put you in this position, but while I was over there they told me they’re going to confiscate our family property. Unless you start giving them information, then obviously that would be an immediate self-report to security into the FBI. But short of those sort of scenarios, this is something that sometimes happens below the radar until and unless it becomes a problem. I guess the sort of top line answer then to our topic question is am I screwed because grandma went to China? Not necessarily, but to your earlier point, Lindy, a lot of this does depend on the country, the identity of the country, and it’s unfortunate, but you do kind of have to keep an eye on world events and have a general understanding of maybe now is not the time to go to Russia, for example. So is there sort of a hot list of countries that you’ve seen recently where people have run into problems besides the obvious of the Russia, the China, Iran?

Lindy Kyzer (07:36):

No, I haven’t seen any examples from outside of those countries, and I do think this is just one area where it behooves you to reach out to again your security officer in advance if you can, and say you are required to report foreign travel. This is again, so I’m not an attorney Sean, so I’m giving different advice even if it’s beyond your self-reporting requirements, giving them a heads up saying, Hey, my grandma reached out. She said she’s going to be in China from this time to this time. Again, very much dependent on your agency, so we always talk. If you’re doing help desk at the DOD, they’re probably not worried about your grandma as much. If you’re working for the DIA, there might be a few more things, but especially country of origin matters here because post OPM hack, I have no doubts that China has a very robust portfolio of anybody in the US that has obtained a security clearance prior to a certain date and no doubt that they have cross-referenced that with anybody who lives there and who knows where.

That’s also been kind of passed around in the dark web. So just kind of being aware of that. We don’t have as much data security as we would like to around that, so don’t assume anything and reach out proactively to your security officer. They should provide you tips. And again, I don’t know the hot countries other than Russia and China, the only ones that primarily I get asked about, but your security officer should, and there are, the State Department is constantly updating warnings and is going to know more specifically, and again, specific to your federal agency, there might be updates that come out, so you should be able to notify your security officer and that’s why they do ask you to report on any foreign travel so they can again ideally provide you with a counterintelligence brief on the front end and then also on the return end. And just because you have relatives that maybe you’re not required to report, if they are really from a hot zone country, I think it’s going to behoove you to at least create a paper trail of awareness so that in case something happens down the road.

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Lindy Kyzer is the director of content at Have a conference, tip, or story idea to share? Email Interested in writing for Learn more here.. @LindyKyzer