Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said in an interview that diplomatic discrimination and violence against members of the Asian American communities are “different manifestations of the same issue: the inability of our government and some people to distinguish between a foreign government and Americans of Asian descent. It was that inability that caused the American government to intern over 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent” during World War II, he said.
The process in question — known as “assignment restriction” — places limits on a diplomat’s security clearance based on concerns about “targeting and harassment by foreign intelligence services as well as to lessen foreign influence,” according to a State Department policy manual.
Links ranging from family connections to substantial financial interests or contacts overseas can be used to keep a diplomat from serving either in a particular country, or working on files related to that country. The issue has been heating up amid the growing great power competition with China and the North Korean nuclear threat.
One former diplomat subject to restrictions was Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.), a Korean-American born in Boston who told MSNBC Wednesday that even though he had “top secret security clearance” and had served in Afghanistan, “One day I was told by the State Department that I was banned from working on anything related to the Korean Peninsula.”
Kim said he was shocked because he had never applied to work on any issues related to the Korean Peninsula. He labeled the decision xenophobic and said that what hurt most was “this feeling that my country didn’t trust me.”
A statement signed by over 100 Asian Americans working in national security and diplomacy, argued Thursday that the increasing U.S. focus on competition with China, has exacerbated “discrimination, and blatant accusations of disloyalty simply because of the way we look.”
The signatories note that “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.”
Top ranks are aware of discrimination
Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing Mar. 10 that he has been aware of complaints of discrimination for several years: “It was an issue that came up when I last served,” as Deputy Secretary from 2015 to 2017, he told the Committee. Blinken added that he is “very concerned” about the issue and will address it as part of a broader overhaul aimed at increasing diversity within the department.
Though the State Department is required by law to provide to Congress “the number and nature of assignment restrictions and preclusions for the previous three years,” a State Department spokesperson was unable to say how many diplomats across the department are currently subject to restrictions.
The spokesperson said the State Department “does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, or age in determining eligibility for access to classified information, including with all security clearance adjudications. The Department also does not make work assignment decisions based on protected characteristics.”
That commitment to equality and fair treatment isn’t felt by a large proportion of Asian American diplomats, however. In a 2020 member survey by AAFAA, 70 percent of 132 members who responded said they believe the department’s assignment restriction process is biased.
Thirty percent of respondents to the AAFAA survey noted they had assignment restrictions placed on them, including 52 percent of staff with family links to China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Three out of four AAFAA members with restrictions said they were not provided reasoning for the decisions that applied to them. Of those that did receive reasons, nearly half said they felt the decision included outright factual errors.
The sorts of errors claimed by the diplomats in the survey results seen by POLITICO included incorrect assertions of immediate family members living in China, and restrictions imposed over parents who were born in China before the 1949 Communist takeover — and who fled rather than live under Communist rule.
The current approach “sends the false message that people who look like me are more disloyal,” said Lieu, who was born in Taipei, Taiwan, and is a naturalized American citizen. Lieu criticized Carol Perez, then the head of the State Department Foreign Service and global talent program, at a September 2020 House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, for being unable to detail the department’s assignment restriction procedures.
Critics of the assignment restriction decisions note that there are many examples of Americans from minority groups — including Asian Americans — serving in countries they share connections with. The two most recent U.S. Ambassadors to Israel, David Friedman and Daniel Shapiro, are Jewish Americans. Ambassador Sung Kim, who is Korean American, served as Ambassador to South Korea from 2011 to 2014. Kim is now acting assistant secretary for Asia Pacific Affairs — the department’s leading regional hand — and joined Blinken on his trip to Asia this week.
Lieu said that the issue first came to his attention while preparing for a Congressional delegation trip to China and Japan in 2015. Members of Congress were briefed by around a dozen diplomats, but “not a single one of them was Asian American,” raising issues of both fairness and whether America is limiting its diplomatic capabilities, he said.
A broken appeals process
For years, there was no process at all for contesting assignment restrictions. Only in 2017, after Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) and then-Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) added language into the State Department Authorization Act to create a formal appeals process, did a system to challenge decisions come into effect.
But Asian American diplomats tell POLITICO that the current system remains deeply flawed. They say that security officials — rather than third party arbitrators — are in charge of reviewing their own initial decisions, and that there are no published numbers about how many appeals succeed or fail.
“While we appreciate the department’s efforts to codify an appeals process,” AAFAA president Shirlene Yee wrote in a note to the new administration, “the appeals process is not independent from DS (Diplomatic Security),” leaving “many employees, disproportionately of Asian American descent, still trapped in a cycle of fighting perceptions of disloyalty.”
A bipartisan effort in Congress to strengthen rights of appeal is underway.
The 2021 State Authorization Act — which seeks to overhaul the department’s operating guidelines for the first time in two decades and is supported by the leaders of both parties on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Reps. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas) — would give diplomats the right to have an independently reviewed appeal heard and finalized within 60 days,
Republican staff on the House Foreign Affairs Committee told POLITICO they have sympathy for Asian American diplomats and want to see the State Department putting its “most qualified people and the best Mandarin speakers” on China-related tasks. But Republican members remain hesitant about any changes that could open new security risks.
Foreigners in their own country
The heart of the issue is that Asian Americans continue to be seen as foreigners by many Americans, including their colleagues, several diplomats told POLITICO.
“The United States is unique among nations because no matter who you are or where you come from, you can be an American. But too often, Asian Americans are cast aside as perpetually foreign and discriminated against as not fully American, including at the U.S. State Department,” Castro told POLITICO.
Yee shared the story of Yuki Kondo-Shah, who was informed just six weeks before departing for a role in Japan that an assignment restriction would prevent her posting. The department’s Diplomatic Security team cited her parent’s country of birth, volunteer work done in Japan after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, and family visits as proof that she could not work on national security matters related to Japan, a close American ally in east Asia.
Kondo-Shah successfully appealed the decision about her “foreign preference” to Japan, and is now a U.S. Consulate officer in Fukuoka, Japan.
Another diplomat, the child of Chinese immigrants, testified anonymously in a Truman Center report on State Department reform, that the security clearance process is structurally biased, penalizing first-generation and second-generation Americans.
The diplomat said they were made to wait three years for their security clearance to begin work at the department. “I reached out to over 100 people — including current and former Ambassadors, Diplomatic Security personnel, and my Congressional representatives — to help expedite my security clearance, to no avail. The Bureau of Diplomatic Security told me that only the U.S. President could expedite my clearance.”
The diplomat added that because of a lack of transparent data “it’s easy to dismiss the problem and consider stories like mine as one-off anecdotes. But they’re not.”