Asian American diplomats say discrimination holds them back as US competes with China
(CNN) -- Thomas Wong graduated from West Point, joined the Army and deployed to combat zones for the United States, but when he became a diplomat, the State Department restricted the New Jersey native from serving in China, citing security concerns. "I felt like my loyalties were being questioned," he said, adding, "I'm convinced race was a factor in that decision."
US Rep. Andy Kim, a New Jersey Democrat and former diplomat, had top-secret security clearance as a State Department adviser to Gen. David Petraeus in Afghanistan but was banned from working in or even on issues pertaining to Korea. "It felt like a very clear signal from the government and my workplace that they didn't trust me fully," the Boston-born Kim told CNN. It was, he said, "a painful and hurtful experience."
Michael Young, who calls himself a San Francisco "Chinatown boy," spent 10 years serving as a US diplomat and, concurrently, in the Army Reserve. During that time, the State Department denied him assignments in China twice. "The second time I got denied, I appealed, and I appealed, and I appealed. It didn't go anywhere," he said. "At that point, I'd had enough." He quit.
Asian American diplomats say that as they try to serve their country, they face disproportionate hurdles in the form of extremely drawn-out security clearance waits, restrictions on where they can serve -- sometimes based on incorrect information -- and a flawed appeals process. Their efforts to change the system have had limited success, but their concerns are gaining traction as the US focuses more intently on the strategic importance of Asia, great power competition with China and North Korea's nuclear threat.
Democrats and Republicans, concerned about the potential loss of cultural and linguistic knowledge that could give the US an edge in global competition, have written legislation to address some of the issues. Asian American and Pacific Islander national security professionals are pressing the case that Chinese Americans in particular are the US' greatest asset in understanding and countering Beijing's economic, political and military aggression.
In response to diplomats' concerns, the Trump administration launched a task force to study assignment restrictions just before it left office. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has begun an ambitious effort to improve diversity and racial equity at the department, picked up the issue and is expected to make an announcement about it in the coming months.
"I am very concerned about these reports," Blinken told lawmakers at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in March. "I've spoken to Asian American colleagues in the department about them and, suffice to say, this is something that I'm looking into."
Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu of California told the secretary that assignment restrictions "not only affect an employee's ability to get promoted to senior leadership, it also affects recruiting and retention. It deprives the United States potentially of cultural and language expertise, and it sends the false message that people who look like me happen to be more disloyal."
While this challenge is decades old, more than 20 current and former AAPI national security professionals who spoke to CNN said they have a strong sense that things have gotten worse in the past few years because, as one Washington-based diplomat said, of "bipartisan and especially Republican fear-mongering about China trying to infiltrate all aspects of society."
Data validates their sense of things.
The State Department declined to answer questions, provide comment or share statistics about assignment restrictions, but CNN obtained a sensitive-but-unclassified 2018 letter to House lawmakers that said restrictions had affected 166 employees in 2015 and 168 in 2016. In 2017, that number nearly doubled to 307. When lawmakers asked for an explanation of the stark jump, the Trump administration never responded, a Capitol Hill aide said.
Diplomats told CNN they have heard anecdotally that colleagues of Russian or Eastern European descent and some colleagues married to Israeli citizens may also have been restricted from certain assignments. But current and former diplomats, lawmakers and others say Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders appear to be more impacted than any other group.
In an open letter published in March, AAPI national security professionals wrote that "the xenophobia that is spreading as U.S. policy concentrates on great power competition has exacerbated suspicions, microaggressions, discrimination, and blatant accusations of disloyalty simply because of the way we look. Many of us have been targeted because we are either ethnically Chinese or simply look Asian."
"This is not to dismiss credible counterintelligence concerns as evidenced through indictments of US citizens -- some of whom are White -- spying for China. Treating all Asian-Americans working in national security with a broad stroke of suspicion, rather than seeing us as valuable contributors, is counterproductive to the greater mission of securing the homeland," the signatories said.
AAPI diplomats speak of the stress, anxiety and pain the restrictions cause, particularly at a time of amplified anti-Asian hate. A 2020 survey by the State Department's Asian American Foreign Affairs Association found 70% of respondents believed the assignment restriction process was biased, and 41% believed there were outright errors in the process.
One diplomat with an assignment restriction found their Diplomatic Security file said they were seeking citizenship in that country. That was "unequivocally false," this person said. Security officials had not even asked them about it. Another diplomat was restricted from serving in China because the department said she had multiple immediate family members in the country. She has none, she said, and never has.
The core issue, Rep. Kim told CNN, revolves around some of America's oldest questions: "What does it mean to be an American, and whether or not they're forever going to see people of color, and especially of AAPI descent, as fully American."
"I was always told diversity is our strength and that's what we want to push forward to the world, but it doesn't feel that way from my experience," Kim continued. "Instead, we come at it from a place where my diversity is a threat or potential threat first, and only when that is as clearly resolved as it can be, then it can be seen as an asset."
The current and former diplomats who spoke to CNN, some of whom asked to be anonymous in order to speak frankly, mentioned the fear of speaking out about assignment restrictions and how discussion often gets shut down because the restrictions are framed as a national security issue.
"All of us who are currently employed fear there could be deleterious impacts on our security clearances because we're pushing back," one said. Losing your security clearance makes it almost impossible to work as a diplomat. But many described this moment as a civil rights awakening for Asian Americans.
'Where are you really from?'
"We're starting to wake up and think, wait a minute, should we be putting up with this anymore, this 'Where are you really from?' attitude," a diplomat serving overseas said. "We're Americans."
Assignment restrictions are largely handled by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, the security and law enforcement branch of the State Department, which is overseen by a political appointee who is often a security professional, sometimes a longtime "DS" officer, who reports to the department's undersecretary for management.
The State Department's Foreign Affairs Manual says it applies assignment restrictions "to prevent potential targeting and harassment by foreign intelligence services as well as to lessen foreign influence and/or foreign preference security concerns," for instance, if an employee or close family members maintain dual citizenship with that country or have substantial financial interests or foreign contacts there.
Assignment restrictions can be put in place when initial security clearance determinations are made, before a staffer begins work at the department, during reinvestigations or when a diplomat's personal life changes because of marriage or other circumstances. They can also be applied weeks before someone is meant to start a job.
Restrictions can also apply to jobs focused on a particular country because they "may present vulnerabilities for targeting when there is frequent official contact with foreign individuals." Temporary assignments in that country cannot last longer than 60 days in any 365-day period.
Carol Perez, the director general of the foreign service who oversees personnel issues told a House committee in September that the restrictions aren't "necessarily that you were born in a country or you have some sort of affiliation, the question is for countries in which there are critical intelligence threats ... what are the family connections that you might have that would make you susceptible to some sort of foreign influence."
But Rep. Kim's experience of being barred from working on or in Korea -- assignments he never sought -- and the experiences of current and former diplomats CNN spoke with demonstrate that critical intelligence threats aren't always a factor. Restrictions are applied against diplomats going to close US allies, such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
Yuki Kondo-Shah, the California-born daughter of a Japanese American mother, was selected for a position at the US consulate in Fukuoka, Japan, in November 2016. Six weeks before she was to start there in July 2018 -- with plane tickets in hand and moving arrangements settled -- Diplomatic Security emailed to say she couldn't be posted there. She was one of several diplomats who recounted the struggle of having jobs yanked at the last minute and recalls the emotionally draining experience of lodging an appeal, including the financial challenge of hiring a lawyer.
Kondo-Shah's file noted that her mother was Japanese, that she had family and friends in Japan, that she had volunteered to help with tsunami relief there. It also said, incorrectly, that she had Japanese citizenship. She appealed and, in a shock to many of her colleagues, won. She flew to Japan weeks later.
Diplomats noted other inconsistencies in the way the policy is applied, including that colleagues who are married to Chinese, Japanese and Korean citizens -- the definition of a "close family member" -- still serve in those countries.
Apart from the assignment restrictions, AAPI diplomats sometimes wait so long for security clearances that they lose job opportunities and internships, while non-Asian peers appear to get approvals within months.
The net result, diplomats and their advocates say, is a steady erosion of morale and opportunity at the personal level, and a loss for the institution and US national security. Many diplomats told CNN they considered leaving the department; several did.
'I wanted to serve'
One former diplomat spoke of losing an internship and a department scholarship because her security clearance took almost three years to come through. She watched fellow students get clearances within months and was particularly struck when a peer with an eerily similar background -- another American who had gone to a top university, also had studied in China, also had family there -- got a clearance in six months. The former diplomat said she and colleagues saw one major difference with this peer: "Their name and their face are not as Chinese sounding as mine."
Her observation echoes one other AAPI diplomats have made: Chinese American diplomats who took Western-sounding surnames on marriage went on to serve in China despite having immediate family there. One diplomat, discussing the hurdles AAPI diplomats face getting clearances, joked bitterly that "it helps immensely to change one's last name."
The former diplomat said she had quit because the department "just made me feel so small. ... I wanted to give back to my country, I wanted to serve, I wanted to be an asset, but the entire time I was seen as a threat and made to feel that I didn't belong, and that was hurtful."
And there is the invisible career cost. These diplomats meet the criteria for top-secret security clearances, yet the assignment restrictions can create a "stigma," one diplomat said. "You're in the department in highly sensitive meetings, or if you are trying to bid on your next assignment, and you have that cloud hanging over you -- people think, 'Can this person be trusted?' or 'Maybe we shouldn't hire this person because they might have a security restriction?' It definitely prevents people from serving to their fullest ability."
It also costs the US taxpayer. The government spends up to $480,000 per diplomat for two years of language training in what the State Department inspector general calls "super hard languages" -- Arabic, Japanese, Chinese, Korean -- before diplomats start work at a post. It costs millions of dollars when "we could instead be tapping our workforce that already has that ability and language skill, and immediately start going into the field and supporting US policy," said one US-based diplomat.
Despite the challenges, AAPI diplomats are increasingly optimistic about change. They point to bipartisan support in Congress and also to Blinken.
Blinken "is familiar with the issue, he recognizes that it is a problem, he has acted on it before and made the only change so far that has helped," said one diplomat.
As deputy secretary of state during the Obama administration, Blinken helped institute reform that required Diplomatic Security to tell diplomats if they had assignment restrictions and why. Before that, diplomats often weren't aware until they applied for and got jobs in those countries.
Led by lawmakers such as Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas, Congress passed legislation in 2017 that created a formal process for diplomats to appeal their assignment restrictions within 30 days and required State to explain the number and nature of restrictions and preclusions in the last three years.
The process that has emerged is more of a review than an appeal, diplomats and House aides said. If diplomats ask for assignment restrictions to be reconsidered, they go back to the same office -- Diplomatic Security -- that made the original decision. And instead of explaining the nature of the restrictions, Diplomatic Security just sent lawmakers annual numbers with no elaboration.
The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Democratic Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York, and the committee's lead Republican, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, have added language to the Department of State Authorization Act of 2021 calling for an appeals process that wraps up within 60 days and mirrors the steps taken when a diplomat appeals the denial or retraction of their security clearance: The issue goes to another group within State to review.
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