Does politicking constitute "service of a foreign government"?
April 15, 2009 11:53 AM   Subscribe

US citizen, long time resident abroad, approached to engage in opposition politics by local representatives of this particular party. Query: what exactly counts as "service of a foreign government" from the viewpoint of The US State Department?

I've found myself caught up - not by choise but by the necessity of being uncomfortable with standing by and not helping - in certain politics of a certain country. Topical speeches made by myself to small audiences (i.e., started last summer speaking to about one dozen, last presentation had 300 people total, including elected reps, general public and various media) have resonated with increasing numbers of people, and now I've been approached by opposition party representatives with an opportunity to carry this issue forward at the national level.

Pros: bigger audiences, greater visibility for the cause I've adopted. Solidifying connections I've made at local political level with someone whom could be an MP if shared efforts come to fruition, access to someone holding high level elected office. Opportunity to work on a foreign political campaign.

Negatives: many minor mostly and concerned with personal time availability / management issues (I'm on a sabbatical from my career at present and don't want to get massively sidetracked), however the major con concerning me and in fact reason for this post are laws against US Citizens engaging in what might be construed as service of a foreign nation, under possible penalty of treason.

I've raised a query with the local US Embassy, who wasn't very helpful. Directed to push the question over to State in DC, where again I hit a brick wall. Used informal contacts I've retained from an old agency job to drive query forward with State but still no definitive answer. Responses indicate this "depends". Depend upon what I have no idea, nobody seems in a position to tell me and the possible stakes make me uncomfortable.

I work in a completely different field and have absolutely no legal experience / knowledge whatsoever, however I do recall from various US government service exams I took last century the three Neutrality acts specifically prohibiting American citizens working in the service of a foreign nation were repealed with the entry of the United States into WWII. That being said, I've been living outside the United States for so long I have no idea what laws have been either passed or misinterpreted recently.

So has any US citizen ever worked on a foreign election campaign? We're talking the politics of a mainstream, moderate, European nation, however definitely left of the US left. Preliminary indications are this may be a very high profile election campaign, and I am specifically interested in any contact from or conflict with the US Embassy or State regarding ones activities on any such campaign, particularly successful ones. While the political party in question isn't openly hostile to US policy, they (like myself) aren't blindly and across the board supportive either.

If information as presented isn't sufficient I can be reached at

Many thanks!
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (17 answers total)
One of Barack Obama's former advisors is helping Prince Radu of Romania run for president.

If you don't know much about this, run your situation past the person helping Prince Radu (I can't remember who she is) or the State Department.
posted by kldickson at 12:04 PM on April 15, 2009

I have never heard of "service of a foreign nation" being used to mean anything but military service.

In any case, a political party isn't a government, is it? In all the European countries whose system I know anything about, the political parties are registered corporate entities, not government agencies.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:06 PM on April 15, 2009

you should get a lawyer. there are several major law firms with offices in US and Europe.
posted by Flood at 12:07 PM on April 15, 2009

Dude, you're not going to get charged with treason for working on a foreign political campaign. Our republic may have developed some minorly paranoid and authoritarian tendencies over the past decade or so, but I don't think you need to be anywhere near as concerned as you seem to be about this. This ain't the Soviet Union.

The only way I can see that anything like this might ever come back to haunt you is if you were to apply for security clearances back in the U.S.. In that specific context, the relevant authorities do get edgy about the sort of thing you're describing.
posted by killdevil at 12:08 PM on April 15, 2009

Yeah, and the Justice Department has in recent memory construed treasonable "service of a foreign government" to mean either passing secrets to another nation (a la Aldrich Ames) or taking up arms against U.S. soldiers (a la John Walker Lindh). I don't think what you're proposing to do would qualify.
posted by killdevil at 12:12 PM on April 15, 2009

Probably nothing to worry about. You aren't working for the foreign government, even. I know someone who did political work in an (now-ex-) Soviet republic and he's an elected official now.

Mefi mail me if you want me to put you in touch with him, if you think that might be helpful.
posted by Weighted Companion Cube at 12:18 PM on April 15, 2009

I don't think that treason, as defined by U.S. Code is really the pertinent concept (unless the country in question could be considered an "enemy" of the U.S.)

Did you come across this State Department bulletin? It's about loss of citizenship, not treason, but I think it pertains (bolding mine):
The Department has a uniform administrative standard of evidence based on the premise that U.S. citizens intend to retain United States citizenship when they obtain naturalization in a foreign state, subscribe to a declaration of allegiance to a foreign state, serve in the armed forces of a foreign state not engaged in hostilities with the United States, or accept non-policy level employment with a foreign government.

In light of the administrative premise discussed above, a person who:
  • is naturalized in a foreign country;
  • takes a routine oath of allegiance to a foreign state;
  • serves in the armed forces of a foreign state not engaged in hostilities with the United States, or
  • accepts non-policy level employment with a foreign government,
and in so doing wishes to retain U.S. citizenship need not submit prior to the commission of a potentially expatriating act a statement or evidence of his or her intent to retain U.S. citizenship since such an intent will be presumed.
This policy change dates from about 1990 — prior to this time, the State Department would scrutinize people engaging in the above listed activities much more closely, and any such action would be thought to be indicative of a desire to renounce one's citizenship. This is no longer the case.
posted by Johnny Assay at 12:21 PM on April 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

American lobbyists do this kind of thing all the time. Look at all the stuff Dick Morris is into.
posted by Kirklander at 12:29 PM on April 15, 2009

Aaaand right after I hit submit, I poked around a little more and found this bulletin concerning U.S. citizens seeking foreign office. In particular,
In some cases, it would appear that holding a foreign office may be incompatible with maintaining U.S. citizenship (e.g. if the position necessarily entails absolute immunity from U.S. law and the powers of the office are exercised in a manner contrary to United States law), although even this situation would be examined on a case by case basis. The Department does not normally consider foreign government service alone as sufficient to sustain the burden of showing loss of U.S. citizenship by a preponderance of the evidence when the individual has explicitly expressed a contrary intent. This is particularly true when the individual continues to file U.S. tax returns, enters and leaves the U.S. on a U.S. passport (as required by law), maintains close ties in the U.S. (such as maintaining a residence in the U.S.), and takes other actions consistent with an intent to retain U.S. citizenship.
There's also an address at the bottom of this second bulletin that you can write to for more information; if you're still concerned, you could write to them and find out. (In my experience, snail-mail is the best way to get in touch with a sub-sub-sub-department of a large bureaucracy.)
posted by Johnny Assay at 12:32 PM on April 15, 2009

follow-up from the OP
Thanks to everyone who contributed, especially kldickson for the point on one of Barack Obama's former advisors, and Johnny Assay for taking the time to provide two detailed answers. Much appreciated.

My concern was triggered by converstaions with two representatives of the political party in question, who brought this issue / possible constraint to my attention. I absolutely had never heard of it before and clearly the possibility of treason needs to be addressed very carefully.

I definitely will follow up via snail mail as I've got a few month lead time before elections kick off, and the possibility of a post election position has been discussed if things go well.
posted by jessamyn at 12:55 PM on April 15, 2009

I'd say go for it; especially, put very plainly, since we're all adults here, if you're going to work for a pro-US party, I don't think anything will happen to you at all with US authorities. I'd advise against activism in certain regions -- say, the West Bank (on the Palestinian side), etc. It's not like you're asking about joining Al qaeda or something anyway.
posted by matteo at 1:04 PM on April 15, 2009

Adam Gadahn has been indicted for treason. But that's because he's working for al Qaeda. He's also the first American indicted for treason since 1952.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:14 PM on April 15, 2009

Plenty of US kids intern for MPs at the UK Houses of Parliament. I don't think they get locked up when they get home.
posted by Idcoytco at 1:29 PM on April 15, 2009

I work in US politics, and everyone I know would kill to work on a campaign in another country. In addition to Dick Morris, James Carville/Paul Begala and David Axelrod (Obama's senior strategist) have done this many times.
posted by lunasol at 3:46 PM on April 15, 2009

But of course, as someone else said, make sure this opposition party has no ties to terrorists, insurgents, or any other kinds of freedom fighters. But you know that.
posted by lunasol at 3:47 PM on April 15, 2009

Ciaran Cuffe is a TD (MP) in Ireland. The freepers phoned the state department about him after he blogged that he voted for Obama. Evidently nobody did anything to take his US citizenship away.
posted by jamesonandwater at 4:08 PM on April 15, 2009

Svend Robinson, former MP, was born (and remains) a U.S. citizen.
posted by oaf at 9:52 PM on April 15, 2009

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