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It might seem like a trivial matter – but what do you do if you receive a foreign language newspaper or message, especially one that is of a political or perhaps even radical nature? It might not be uncommon for those with Polish, Russian, Hungarian or even German last names to be added to a mailing list from some community group. This reporter once received a Romanian language newspaper that had ties to a socialist group – and it took some effort to convince them to stop sending it.
Is this something of concern to those who hold security clearance, and should it be reported?
“On the surface, these types of situations would typically not be reportable per any requirement,” suggested Mark S. Zaid, founding Partner of Mark S. Zaid, PC.
“Obviously, depending upon the facts of the specific situation, reporting the issue may nonetheless be the best course of action,” Zaid told ClearanceJobs. “For example, if someone started receiving mail – hopefully not solicited – from a foreign group advocating the violent overthrow of the U.S. government, I would recommend they report that in case the government was monitoring that organization.”
Even if these groups may not have sinister motives in mind, and perhaps think they are just reaching out to those with valid interests, this should still be a concern to those with security clearance. This is because in some cases this could be bait to hook in potential assets.
“This is something you should report,” said Dan Meyer, managing partner at the D.C. office of the Tully Rinckey Law Firm.
“The challenge is how this relates to the definition of close and continuous foreign contact,” Meyer told ClearanceJobs. “What is ‘close and continuous’ can depend on what work you do. If you’re in the CIA, NSA or DIA, just having a Facebook account can be a problem because you could come into regular contact with someone who is a foreigner. Other agencies may not have the same issue, but it really comes down to sending messages back and forth – that is close and continuous.”
Receiving a foreign language newspaper – even one that is unsolicited – falls into this category. It may not matter where it was published either. Moscow and Minneapolis are both a concern if the paper is in Russian.
“If you are receiving some publication gratuitously in a foreign language you must report that,” Meyer added. “No one likes to do it, but the intelligence community watches for this sort of thing. It may be nothing but it could be part of a pitch, and a way for a foreign nation to hook someone. The intelligence agencies will want to know if suddenly a number of individuals are receiving these papers as that could be an issue.”
The same thing applies to emails in foreign languages or from a foreign source; requests to be friends with someone on Facebook who is located overseas; or even from supposedly distant relatives who contacted you because of an ancestry search.
“A lot of this can be benign but you may need to report it,” explained Meyer. “It used to be hard enough when it was receiving newspapers or going to a conference and meeting someone. Now it is a lot harder because of the Internet ,where someone could pretend to be your distant cousin. That person contacts you tries to befriend you. Those are the kinds of things that can become problematic very quickly.”
Meyer suggests that these are examples of things that should be reported on an SF-86 form. “If you are exposed in any way internationally, including talking to people in chat rooms, you have to go through documenting that.”
The other part of this is that while there are probably hundreds of thousands of people with common names such as John Smith or Jane Adams, what happens when you have a less common name and someone with said name is posting radical or controversial statements online.
Is that a valid concern?
“This is the ‘Ted Kennedy’ paradigm,” said Meyer. “Even as a Senator of the United States he was on a no-fly list because he had the same name of an IRA activist.”
Others, such as Steve Hayes of The Weekly Standard, experienced a similar problem with the no-fly list, but in that case it wasn’t a matter of confusion with another flier. Instead, Hayes suggested it was due to a flight he took from Istanbul at a time when some radicalized people were flying through Turkey to join ISIS in Syria.
Regardless of the reason, while the no fly list may complicate matters at the airport, it isn’t a career issue. This may also be true for those who have similar names to people posting on social media or belonging to radical groups online.
“This is something you don’t have to report,” said Meyer. “There is no obligation to do anything about this confusion, even if the person is posting online. If in the periodic background check it is noted it could become a discussion, but you can clear the lane quickly as you are not that person.”
Yet, if the person with the similar name is making dangerous statements against the United States, reporting this might not be such a bad idea.
“If the individual had a similar name to someone who would be considered a national security threat, I could definitely see recommending that be reported up front as well, particularly to diffuse the possible scenario of mistaken identity,” said Zaid.
“Unfortunately that does happen often, including in the cleared world,” Zaid added. “The bottom line in these situations is to proactively disclose in order to avoid having to respond at a later date.”