Democratic lawmakers introduced legislation to address long-standing complaints that the State Department places disproportionate restrictions on the places diplomats of certain backgrounds can serve and that there is no independent appeals process to challenge decisions.
“To strengthen American foreign policy and diplomacy, we must ensure our best and brightest individuals are able to serve,” said Rep. Ted Lieu of California, who introduced the bill with Reps. Joaquin Castro of Texas, Andy Kim of New Jersey and Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania. “The State Department’s Assignment Restrictions Policy is discriminatory, disproportionately impacts federal employees who can’t trace their heritage to the Mayflower and directly undermines the department’s goal of promoting diversity and inclusion.”
The State Department’s assignment restrictions are applied by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, sometimes to employees who otherwise hold top-secret clearances, to prevent them from serving in particular countries or even, while they’re in Washington, from working on issues related to those countries.
‘To prevent potential targeting’
According to the Foreign Affairs Manual, the goal is “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.
The restrictions, which affect diplomats of all backgrounds but appear to fall disproportionately on employees with Asian American and Pacific Islander backgrounds, have concerned lawmakers who point to the potential loss of cultural and linguistic knowledge that could give the US an edge in global competition.
Asian American Pacific Islander national security professionals, in particular, have argued that Chinese Americans are the US’ greatest asset in understanding and countering Beijing’s economic, political and military aggression.
The State Department declined to comment on the legislation. A spokesman said that “as a general matter, the US Department of State does not make security clearance or job assignment decisions based on an employee’s racial or ethnic identity. Employee assignment restrictions, while rare, are designed to ensure the Department appropriately safeguards and protects our national security.”
The spokesman pointed to Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s efforts to improve diversity at the department: “As the Secretary has said, we take reports of discrimination very seriously, and are conducting a thorough review of our assignment processes and adjudication procedures.”
The official said that in all security clearance decisions, “the Department evaluates each case using the whole-person concept and does not request information relating to employees’ racial or ethnic identities. Instead, we consider all available, reliable information about the person – past and present, favorable and unfavorable.”
The current assignment restrictions process is somewhat opaque. Until the Obama administration, Diplomatic Security wasn’t even required to tell diplomats they were barred from certain countries. Often, they would find out only after they had accepted jobs there.
“I’ve come across a number of instances of State Department employees who are given assignment restrictions for no apparent reason,” Lieu told CNN in an interview.
“It appears to me that there are a disproportionate number of Asian Americans who have been affected,” Lieu said, adding that “these assignment restrictions affect all ethnicities and races in the State Department.”
The bill cites State Department data showing that approximately 1,800 employees are currently subject to assignment restrictions. The top four countries to which restrictions apply are China, where 196 US diplomats are barred from serving; Russia, where 184 US diplomats are not allowed to serve; Taiwan, with 84; and Israel, with 70.
The “Accountability in Assignment Restrictions Act,” introduced Thursday, would require the State Department to create an independent appeals process for diplomats seeking to challenge restrictions. Currently, if diplomats ask for assignment restrictions to be reconsidered, they go back to the same office – Diplomatic Security – that made the original decisions.
The bill would set a 60-day deadline for those appeals to be resolved and would require Diplomatic Security to transmit all files related to the appeals to an “Assignment Restriction Appeals Panel” without redaction. That panel would be made up of senior officials, including the department’s chief diversity and inclusion officer.
The State Department would be required to report annually to Congress on the rationale for assignment restrictions, including specific case examples; the ethnicity, national origin and race of the precluded employee; their gender; and the country to which they are barred from being posted.
The report would have to include Diplomatic Security’s reasoning for the restrictions and the number of restrictions that were appealed, along with the success rate of those appeals and the impact of assignment restrictions in terms of unused language skills.
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 are sent to posts. When diplomats are then barred from going to the posting, that investment is lost.
The bill also includes a mandate that State ensure the group of adjudicators and investigators overseeing the assignment restrictions process is diverse itself.
Lieu says the restrictions and their disproportionate impact on AAPI diplomats have to be seen in the broader context of historical discrimination against Asian Americans, a bitter timeline that runs through the Yellow Peril hysteria and the Chinese Exclusion Act of the 1800s to the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II and, more recently, during the Covid-19 pandemic, to the surge in hate crimes against Asian Americans.
There are specific challenges within the federal government, as well, Lieu said. “A number of people in our federal government, when they look at an Asian American, they put them to a higher level of suspicion than if they were looking at someone whose last name was Smith. That’s illegal and wrong, by the way,” he said, before adding that it’s also “sort of endemic.”
Lieu doesn’t expect resistance to the bill in Congress. If it becomes law, he hopes it boosts morale, results in fewer restrictions and helps improve diversity at the State Department.
“You got a problem with diversity as a department, and this problem goes all the way to the highest levels of leadership,” Lieu said. “It simply makes it much more difficult to rise to the top of the State Department if you have an assignment restriction.”
This story has been updated with comments from a State Department spokesman.