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State Dept. eases restrictions on employees with foreign ties


The State Department has loosened longtime restrictions barring some employees from serving in countries where they have close family or financial ties, ending a practice that critics said amounted to a discriminatory professional setback for Asian Americans and other diplomats with certain backgrounds.

In an internal email sent to department employees Wednesday, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the change “allows us to unlock the full potential of our workforce while upholding the highest standards of security.”

The change ends a practice of linking some employees’ access to security clearances with restrictions on their ability to serve in countries to which they have close ties. The rules also have been employed to prevent some department employees from working on issues related to those countries when based in the United States.

Such limitations, critics have said, discouraged diversity and unjustly stunted the careers of Asian American diplomats and other groups who might have close relatives in countries where they would like to serve.

A 2021 proposal from congressional Democrats that aimed to loosen the restrictions showed that the top countries where they were used to block State Department assignments were China, Russia, Taiwan and Israel.

A senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of ground rules set by the department, said the change was aimed at improving recruiting and securing a “diverse, dynamic and entrepreneurial workforce.”

The official said the department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security had lifted such restrictions for many employees in recent years. They remain in place for more than 660 workers, but in keeping with a 2021 law, the department is expanding appeal options for affected individuals.

Christopher Barnes, president of AFGE Local 1534, which represents civil servants at the State Department and other federal agencies, said the union believes that some restrictions are reasonable but welcomes the move.

“If you have a clearance and you work for the federal government, they are in your business and they should be, because it’s a national security issue,” he said. “However, on the flip side, should your career be affected negatively if you’re overseas, you meet somebody and you fall in love, and want to get married?”

Eric Rubin, president of the American Foreign Service Association, said the rules not only hindered careers but also deprived the State Department of talented employees it needs.

“Without saying for sure that there was discriminatory intent, the effect of the assignment restrictions appeared to be discriminatory,” he said.

Rubin said that while the association supported the move, the group has ongoing questions about the new policy, including whether security clearances will become harder to get and whether the department will introduce other means to restrict assignments after employees have obtained clearances. The association is pushing for greater transparency when employees are denied assignments, saying those individuals are often provided little to no information about why they are shut out of certain roles.

“Our hope is that going forward they will make sure this is a very rare thing, make sure it’s not discriminatory, and make sure it’s based on hard reasons that are explained to people,” he said.

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), who sponsored past legislation seeking to roll back assignment limitations, described the reasoning behind the restrictions as “deeply offensive.”

“It’s basically saying that we believe a State Department employee is going to be a traitor at some point in the future,” Lieu said. “If that really is your view, then why do you have them working for the United States in the first place?”

Jenna Ben-Yehuda, a former State Department employee who now serves as president and CEO the Truman National Security Project, said the move was “a long time coming.”

She cited her own experience of what she described as an outgrowth of the earlier rules, saying that when she was working at the agency, she had been informally advised by more senior staff that she, as a Jewish American, might want to avoid working on Middle East issues.

Ben-Yehuda said such policies have resulted in workforce attrition, in part because employees perceive a lack of trust despite having completed a rigorous security clearance process. Being denied such roles also can stall career advancement and take a financial toll.

“Diversity is not only about bringing people in the door [but] also keeping them at the table,” she said.

The policy shift was reported earlier Wednesday by Politico.

*This story has not been edited by The Infallible staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.