Michael Young would be a good guy to have on your side in China.
Born to a Taiwanese family that emigrated to San Francisco in the 1970s, he speaks fluent Mandarin. He studied martial arts in Beijing after college and considered going to make movies in Hong Kong, but ended up attending Harvard's Kennedy School of Government instead. Then he went back to China to work as a telecommunications consultant, before taking the foreign service exam and getting hired by the State Department in 2003.
For his first tour, Young was sent to Seoul, South Korea, where he processed visas for one and a half years. When a spot opened up in Beijing, Young went for it, thinking his language ability and experience in the country would be an asset — and he got the job.
But a few months before he was scheduled to depart, Young got a call from State Department Diplomatic Security saying he wouldn't be allowed to serve in China. Though no reason was given, a higher up told him it might have to do with him having recently married a Korean citizen who was living in China. Young, who was doing required training as an Army reservist, didn't know what to do.
"I was in the field, I wasn't taking showers for five or six days on end, I didn't have the recourse to figure out what my options were," he recalled on a hot July day in the plaza near State Department headquarters. "My marriage quickly began to fell apart, so I ended up taking a job in Kabul, Afghanistan — I was left with the positions that were more difficult to fill."
That took up another year. Then, Young cycled through Vietnam and Pakistan before another job came up in China — this one in Guangzhou. Again, he got the assignment. A few weeks later, Diplomatic Security said he wouldn't be allowed to go. Again, no rationale.
After that, Young stayed in D.C., where he served until recently as the deputy director of the Office of Terrorist Screening and Interdiction. But he's come across many other people who've also been prevented from serving in countries where they have family ties or work experience — 19 Asian Americans in total, and a smattering of others. It's an indication of the difficulty U.S. intelligence agencies face as they try to both recruit staff from diverse communities and cope with threats, both real and perceived, from countries around the world. Though the State Department insists it's for their own protection, to the Asian Americans whose careers it impacts, it's seen as evidence of lingering distrust.
"I think it's wrong. I think it's un-American," says Young. "The state of racism in America has really evolved. It's not overt like it was in the 1960s. It's much more subtle. We've created a culture of fear for ourselves that we have trouble getting away from."
The State Department has long precluded some people from serving in certain countries for various reasons. Stuart Kennedy, a career diplomat who now directs the Foreign Affairs Oral History Program at the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, remembers that Jewish staff wouldn't be assigned to Saudi Arabia at the Saudis' behest, and people with Russian ancestry wouldn't be assigned to Russia during the Cold War. (It was also sometimes the reverse: African Americans would only be sent to African countries, on what was called the "negro circuit").
"I held the, perhaps mistaken, impression that foreign service officers native to a country might have too close ties to their families there and this could expose them to great pressure to give visas to family and friends," Kennedy wrote in an e-mail. "To me it did not seem fair to put officers into a difficult situation even if they might speak the language."
The department has since pushed to shed its white-guy reputation, recruiting minorities through programs like the Pickering Fellowship, as well as changing its admissions exam to be less culturally biased against newcomers. President Obama's 2011 Executive Order on Diversity and Inclusion in the Federal Workforce further solidified the initiative, and Secretary John Kerry talks on State's Web site about the need to present the diverse composition of America to the world.
At the same time, however, the post-Sept. 11 environment heightened the level of scrutiny given to security clearances (there are 13 "guidelines," including "foreign influence"). The State Department found itself with increasing numbers of personnel with international ties to review, especially spouses from other countries, according to a a 2011 Inspector General report.
"HR sees itself grappling with serious assignment issues emanating from the growingly diverse service and the demands for language competent entrants," the report read. "[They] are grappling with DS about how to manage the likely inclusion of entrants with ties to a critical threat country. In addition, there are occasional, and at times emotional, pleas from regional bureaus and/or the officers involved, regarding Diplomatic Security objections to individual assignments to key embassies."
Actual restrictions are fairly rare: The report found that the department had reviewed 700 assignments in 2010 and only held three officers back. In 2011, 1,272 personnel and contractors in total were precluded from serving in a total of 20 countries. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell defended the policy, saying it's a better option than barring a candidate from the service entirely.
"An assignment restriction mitigates risk while allowing an individual to obtain a security clearance and work for the department; we believe this approach is preferred to denying clearance and employment," Ventrell said. Some countries, he explained, will even try to conscript officers who are dual citizens into military service.
Precluded officers usually sympathize with the need to prioritize security. Eveline Tseng, who is from Taiwan and has a Chinese stepmother, was denied her first assigned post in Beijing and sent to Mexico instead (she knew ahead of time that she'd be precluded from Taiwan, but hadn't figured it would extend to China as well). Tseng appealed the decision, and it was reversed — but too late for that tour, and even the next one, which she worries will make it difficult for her to pursue the career she'd envisioned in East Asia. Still, Tseng does understand the rationale for keeping her out of a country where she has deep family roots.
"I know I could say no to my family. But that wouldn't stop them from asking," Tseng says. "You're just constantly being bombarded. 'You're Asian, you're one of us, what do you mean you can't give me a visa, I've known your grandmother for 50 years.' So even though I'm like, 'I'm sorry, you're still a stranger to me,' could that negatively affect her relationship with my grandmother, and would that affect the way I respond? Maybe."
Others, however, question whether that's a good enough justification for precluding someone from a country when there are so many other factors that could lead someone to betray U.S. interests — as new foreign service officers are even taught in their introductory class, called A-100. Longtime Soviet spy Robert Hanssen, for example, said he just did it for the money. Clayton Lonetree, a U.S. Marine convicted of espionage in 1987, was seduced by a Russian spy. Then there are Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning, who leaked secret information for ideological reasons.
"I have wracked my brain and cannot think of any historical examples of foreign service officers comprising their country's interests because of family or other connections to the host country," says William Keylor, a professor of international relations at Boston University. The bigger problem is "clientitis," which happens when people spend enough time in one place to adopt its point of view. "That can happen to anyone, regardless of any familial or other ties to the country," he says.
In fact, officers with more cultural fluency might be better equipped to recognize and resist blackmail attempts than someone who's arriving there for the first time — as well as carry a strong message of American values. Cecilia Choi, president of the State Department's internal Asian American Foreign Affairs Association, says she was a unique asset as a Korean American serving in Seoul.
"We are the soft power of the U.S.," Choi says. "If I go into a room and I say, 'You need to review your election laws, you need to be transparent,' and I look like the person I'm talking to, it's harder for them to it say, 'It's just a cultural thing, we're not there yet, Asians like to take orders.' Or, 'It's cultural for us to have this kind of system.' I can look at them and say, 'No it's not, a lot of Asian Americans aren't using that kind of system.' "
Finally, there's the financial bottom line: It costs tens of thousands of dollars to teach someone a language from scratch, especially difficult ones like Chinese, Russian and Arabic. That's why, a few years ago, State started preferentially hiring people who already know those languages — which makes it frustrating to be told you can't put them to use. One Chinese American former foreign service officer, who asked not to be named because of the nature of her current employment, even left the department because of it.
"I think a lot of us thought that was why they'd recruited us, because we would be able to do a better job because you already know the cultural nuances," she said. "I was fine to serve in other countries. But I felt my career prospects were limited, because I was not able to use one of my biggest assets, in a department that really needs that."
The greatest harm of the preclusion policy, besides losing the benefit the skills of native language speakers, may be how it projects an image of distrust. Several foreign service officers brought up the historical example of Japanese Americans being interned during World War II, as well as the persecution of Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos scientist who was wrongfully accused of leaking information to the Chinese. Asians are no strangers to the suspicion that they might be serving another master.
For example: When Kendrick Liu was applying to serve on the D.C.-based desk that deals with China and Mongolia, he says he was asked to submit information about relatives who were foreign-born U.S. citizens, and was ultimately denied the position on security grounds (Diplomatic Security had previously forced him to forego an assignment in Hong Kong as well).
"It seemed to me they were making distinctions between American citizens and American citizens who were't born in the United States, which in my mind seemed odd," Liu says. "Because as I was taught to understand it, an American citizen is an American citizen, period."
And then there's Andrew Ou, a Korean-born officer who spent time on a fellowship program in Japan. Years after being told he couldn't serve in Japan for security reasons, he requested his files under the Freedom of Information Act. They contained copious notes about work he'd done for a Japanese official, as well as a Japanese girlfriend. The preclusion was later reversed, but barely.
"I'm American, and this whole process challenged that concept," Ou says. "I was surprised, I was angry, I was bitter."
To the Asian American Foreign Affairs Association, the preclusions are indicative of a larger problem. While Asians are coming into the State Department at higher rates, they fade out at the highest levels, which Choi says could be evidence of a "bamboo ceiling."
"If you were in a different field, like dentistry, if someone didn't think you were American, they would still go to you to get their teeth cleaned," Choi says. "But if you're in the area of foreign affairs, if people don't think you're American, that can be devastating to your career."
The State Department's union, the American Foreign Service Association, hears about these issues often, and offers legal advice for filing complaints. Recently, they've asked for a review of the demographic composition of key offices within the Department to see whether different groups might be underrepresented, as well as those who've been precluded from different countries. It's not just Asians, says AFSA official Matthew Asada — people from Eastern Europe and the Middle East have also had trouble with their clearances. But the Asians are the only ones who've raised their voice.
"One of the reasons why you're hearing about it from Asian Americans is that the AAFAA has been good about reaching out to its members and collecting their stories," Asada says. "A comparable organization doesn't exist for other ethnic groups. Perhaps some of our Muslim employees don't feel as protected if they were to raise concerns, in this post 9/11 world. It's not easy being Muslim in america, and it's easier not to say anything."
It's not easy for Asians to speak up either. But after years of trying to get answers, Young says the waiting had gone on long enough.
"I have been told by some colleagues to be careful in raising this story, for fear of rocking the boat," he says. "That may have as much to do with us being Asian as it is being fearful of the counterintelligence apparatus. We're taught to keep our heads down, work hard, don't create a ruckus, eventually everything's going to work itself out. Which is fine, but not for me."