Asian American lawmakers say State’s ‘assignment restrictions’ discriminate

Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.) viewed working at the State Department as a dream job until he left it after experiencing what he described as discrimination based on his Korean heritage.

Kim, the son of Korean immigrants, was informed by letter while at the agency during the Obama administration that he was barred from working on any issues related to Korea.

He had never pursued work in the region but found the letter chilling.

“It was disturbing to me that while I was doing my work there, including a tour out in Afghanistan and elsewhere, that my government was — my employer even — was suspicious of me,” Kim, a Rhodes scholar with a doctorate in international relations, said in an interview with The Hill.

Kim, who left the State Department in 2016, had been placed on an “assignment restriction” — a controversial policy that continues to draw criticism of bias and errors despite reforms put in place in October 2016.

Critics say the policy is flawed and a significant barrier to efforts aimed at improving diversity at the State Department in general.  

As a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Kim is engaging with State Department leadership on the restriction issue and to improve retention and promotion of underrepresented minorities.

“If we can have people who understand these cultures on a deeper level, have native fluency in different languages, that should be a strength of ours and that is what we would want to strengthen our ties with other countries around the world,” Kim said.

“I just don’t want us to think about that as a liability or as a potential threat.”

The Foreign Affairs Manual says assignment restrictions, which can come out during the initial security clearance process or when they are reviewed by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, can be placed on an individual over family ties to a particular country or if a person has substantial financial interests or foreign contacts in a particular country.

The manual says the restrictions are meant “to prevent potential targeting and harassment by foreign intelligence services as well as to lessen foreign influence and/or foreign preference security concerns.”

The 2016 reforms instituted included efforts to increase transparency around such decisions and to strengthen the appeals process.

But advocates who pushed for reforms say they failed to be implemented fully during the Trump administration, another casualty of what critics said was a general assault on the State Department’s integrity. Advocates in particular want the appeals process to take place outside the Bureau of Diplomatic Security.

“Unfortunately for assignment restrictions, the appeal goes straight back to the exact office that made the decision,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), a Taiwanese immigrant who serves as a colonel in the Air Force Reserve and is critical of the restrictions.

Lieu said he believes Secretary of State Antony Blinken has the power to impose that reform immediately, but if such a change isn’t made, lawmakers could legislate it.

The proposed Department of State Authorization Act of 2021, authored by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and ranking member Michael McCaul (R-Texas), would make the appeals process similar to that for a security clearance and mandate that any review be resolved within 60 days.

Other suggested reforms include adding an officer responsible for diversity and inclusion on any appeals panel, to formalize data gathering to better measure against anecdotal criticism that the restrictions are biased and to set standards for improvement.

The lack of hard data is a point of confusion for lawmakers and advocates.

An official with the American Foreign Service Association said that the organization sought data in June 2020 from the State Department broken down by gender, ethnicity and other criteria to evaluate whether certain groups were suffering disproportionately, but only received some general information.

CNN reported that it had obtained a sensitive-but-unclassified 2018 letter to House lawmakers that said restrictions had affected 166 employees in 2015, 168 in 2016 and 307 in 2017.

Lieu, during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in March, pressed Blinken to provide data, including a breakdown of those restricted by race and ethnicity, but has yet to receive any response.

He said he is willing to give the issue a few more weeks, but silence from the State Department is likely to be met with a second, formal request, with any legal action viewed as a last resort.  

While the restrictions can impact any ethnic minority at the State Department, advocates say it disproportionately impacts Asian Americans. The Asian American Foreign Affairs Association was a key driving force behind the 2016 reforms.

“I have had meetings with Asian American State Department employees, and they would tell me about their assignment restriction and how there was literally no basis for those restrictions,” said Lieu. “The only thing they could figure out was it was because of their last name or their ethnicity.”

A State Department spokesperson wrote in an emailed response to The Hill that the agency “does not and will not request information relating to an employees’ race and ethnicity” when adjudicating security clearances and said that these are not factors in evaluating eligibility for security clearance.  

The spokesperson said the agency does not make assignment restrictions based on protected characteristics of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability or age and that it does not discriminate based on these characteristics.

Further, the spokesperson said that assignment restrictions address concerns listed in the National Security Adjudicative Guidelines that would otherwise result in a security clearance being denied.

The guidelines followed are laid out in directives by the Office of Director of National Intelligence, specifically “Security Executive Agent Directive 4” guidelines, the spokesperson said. The 27-page guidelines were updated in 2017.

“Each case is evaluated using the whole person concept, which is a careful weighing of reliable information about the person, past and present, favorable and unfavorable.”

The spokesperson said the State Department is committed to diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility as well as fair and equal treatment of men and women in the workforce.  

“As the Secretary said during his March hearing, we take reports of discrimination very seriously, and are conducting a thorough review of our assignment processes and adjudication procedures,” the spokesperson continued. “The Department is also evaluating the process in its entirety, including the assignment restriction review process.” 

Blinken has said improving diversity and retention of minorities at the State Department is the yardstick he’ll use for evaluating whether he succeeded or failed as the nation’s top diplomat. And lawmakers and advocates are cautiously optimistic that the Biden administration will follow through.

An encouraging step was the appointment in April of Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, a career foreign service officer who served as ambassador to Malta, to the newly created position of chief diversity officer.

“You don’t appoint Gina to a position like this if you don’t mean business,” said Jenna Ben-Yehuda, a former State Department official and president and CEO of the Truman National Security Project and the Truman Center for National Policy.

Abercrombie-Winstanley was one of three co-chairs to the Truman Center’s task force that published in March a roadmap to increasing diversity at the State Department.

“She combines this unique, really, skillset of understanding the experiences of being a black woman coming up, having spent over 30 years in the department, understands every little trick in the book,” Ben-Yehuda said. “She understands all of the minutia while also being a strategic thinker, and that is a really rare combination. She’ll be really powerful in this role.”

Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) is planning on reintroducing legislation addressing diversity at the State Department that would, among other things, formalize Abercrombie-Winstanley’s position. He welcomed the early moves by the Biden administration but said more work needs to be done.  

“I think they’re moving in the right direction. It’s a big improvement over the Trump administration,” he told The Hill.

Kim said he is engaged with Biden administration officials over improving diversity at the agency and said that, on top of being the right thing to do, it is critical to America’s national security.

“There are some, now, real questions where some of our adversaries are trying to say that the system of America does not work, both in terms of our democracy and our diversity and we have to counter that,” he said.  

“The State Department is one of the most key ways in which that happens.”

Tags Andy Kim Antony Blinken Asian American discrimination Gregory Meeks Joaquin Castro Michael McCaul State Department Ted Lieu

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