FREMONT -- In 2010, about nine months after Zafar Kahn Yousufzai began working for a U.S. Department of Defense contractor, he received news that shocked him and threatened his career.
After a routine background check, the U.S. government had denied the Fremont man's security clearance, and Yousufzai lost his job with Concepts & Strategies Inc., a private communications firms that often contracts with government agencies.
Yousufzai's case highlights a national security quandary: The military often hires foreign-born employees who understand another nation's culture in an effort to win the battle for hearts and minds. Yet, it also must guard against security risks. It's a delicate dance, and sometimes the careers of Americans like Yousufzai have been hurt in the process.
Yousufzai, a Muslim born in Pakistan who became an American citizen 25 years ago, contends his security denial is a case of ethnic discrimination.
He was employed by Concepts & Strategies, Inc. -- known as ConStrat -- from November 2009 to August 2010. During that time, ConStrat contracted with U.S. Central Command, one of six Defense Department commands overseeing military operations on foreign soil, including enemy combat and strategies for promoting U.S. interests. Central Command's responsibility area includes the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa -- including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. Yousufzai and other ConStrat employees worked with Central Command Communications Integration, the department tasked with communicating U.S. policies to foreign residents.
Yousufzai said he served on a team of social media analysts who wrote essays and posted pro-U.S. comments on foreign-language blogs and social media websites. They wrote in English and Urdu -- Pakistan's native language -- while defending U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, promoting the military's positive efforts and countering anti-American opinions.
The analysts used pen names that cloaked individual identities while openly identifying themselves as American government employees.
"It's not propaganda," Yousufzai said. "It's a way to educate people."
U.S. Central Command spokesman Robert S. Prucha confirmed that Yousufzai formerly worked as a ConStrat employee at Central Command's headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla. But Prucha declined to comment further, saying "it would be inappropriate" to discuss Yousufzai's departure because "it was a decision made by ConStrat."
Tina Romero, a ConStrat employee, said her company had no comment about Yousufzai, including whether or not he worked for ConStrat.
Yousufzai appealed the security clearance denial, but it was upheld. After 19 months of trying, he finally obtained an explanation. The reason? "Foreign influence" because he "has immediate family living abroad," according to government documents.
Yousufzai was baffled, saying he is a loyal American who was willing to live 3,000 miles from his wife and children to support U.S. policies. Today, he is back in Fremont, working at an East Bay nonprofit that helps seniors gain job skills. But he still chafes at his job loss. "My family in Pakistan has never been involved in politics; my sister is a teacher, another sister is a housewife and my brother owns a business," he said. "If this happened to me, it can happen to any U.S. immigrant citizen."
Rizwan Nasar said he is a current ConStrat employee who worked alongside Yousufzai, whom he described as a great employee with an excellent command of multiple languages.
"I'm totally shocked he didn't get clearance," said Nasar, an American citizen born in Pakistan. "To work there nine months and then be denied clearance, that seems weird."
Steve Weber, a UC Berkeley political science professor, said the government sometimes must deny security clearances to protect the American people, yet relying on a person's birthplace or citizenship "is a pretty lousy way" to measure whether someone is a security risk.
"You'd think these rules would have softened a bit 11 years after 9/11," he said. "But as far as I can tell, they've actually gotten more restrictive."
Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.