Challenges Associated With Long Term US Presence Advising Foreign Nations

Since our birth as a nation, we have been involved with providing advice to foreign governments. This advice ranges across the spectrum from Diplomatic to economics to judicial, to conservation, to military. Anything one can think up that requires nations to engage each other requires some sort of advice giving. From a military standpoint, the strategic (i.e.-warfighting) to the operational (i.e.-how things are employed in warfighting) to the tactical (i.e. – individual and small unit employment) are the types of advice most often given. Their significance cannot be emphasized enough. At any given moment across the globe, their are individuals representing the US Government, providing advice to these foreign governments. Some of them work in teams and some alone. Some are high ranking officers and some are lower ranking, Non Commissioned Officers. These individuals, typically, live for long periods of time embedded with their counterparts and may develop close relationships with them. This causes a unique relationship to be developed between the advisor and those he is attempting to advise. It also causes some concern for the protection of sensitive information. Most advisors have access to some sort of classified information. Some is releasable to their counterparts and some may not be. How do they protect what is not releasable from compromise or espionage? They will also have access to sensitive information produced by their counterparts. What do they do with this information? These are some of the questions I hope to be able to answer.

The risk of compromise is greater for advisors who live long term with foreign counterparts than it is for others that hold clearances. The clearance adjudication process has a guideline specifically for foreign influence. However, the foreign influence implicated the most is family and there are others. The government should have a vetting process, outside the normal security clearance process, to vet potential advisors before they act in this capacity.

What is it that advisors do and what makes the job hazardous as far as protecting information is concerned? Advisors live and work with an assigned unit and/or counterpart(s) for long periods of time. They may be an advisor to an individual or they may advise a group of individuals that work in a specific area or have responsibility for a specific area. The typical military advisor is assigned to this job for at least one year but may serve longer. Those that function most efficiently in this environment are those that have worked overseas engaged with foreign nationals previously. Advisors are embedded in every way with those they advise. They eat, sleep, work and relax when their counterparts do and in accordance with their schedules. In most cases, there are no other American personnel nearby. This causes a unique relationship to develop between the American and his counterpart. If he is not well trained and experienced, he may become victim to varying degrees on culture shock and, often, suffers from a variation of “Stockholm Syndrome”. Over long periods of time, he becomes more and more at risk of accepting the ideology and, conceivably, even loyalty to his counterparts.

What do advisors do that puts them at risk? Simply put, they have access to sensitive information that must be safeguarded. From a US standpoint, not all information that an advisor has access to is suitable for their counterparts. From a counterpart standpoint, they have information that they do not want the US to have access to. Often times, this causes a shell game to be played by the advisor in his attempt to protect what he should and share what he can. Though not a particularly dangerous shell game, it is one that can cause a loss of rapport with his counterparts if not played expertly. This is extremely important as rapport is the backbone of any good advisor relationship.

Being an advisor is an incredibly complex and nuanced job. One is asked to do things completely outside the scope of normal, day to day activities. An advisor must use all techniques at his disposal to convince his counterparts to do the things that he, the advisor, thinks needs to occur. Any good advisor spends at least the first few weeks assessing his counterparts. He must determine strengths and weaknesses without alerting his counterparts. Working with other cultures is a sensitive job. Even though counterparts must always know the extent of the mission and purpose of the advisor, it is often a tough pill to swallow to have an “advice giver”. One might say that the unit/counterpart is fortunate to have garnered the attention of the US Government sufficiently to acquire a personal advisor. However, not all counterparts see it this way. Many view their advisors as sanctioned spies or, at best, hindrances to the way operations are normally conducted.

Working as an advisor creates an environment where a unique set of dynamics comes into people for both parties. T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) wrote his famous “Twenty Seven Articles” in 1917 which have become sacrosanct of the modern advisor as these tips are still accurate today. First, advisors have no positional authority over their counterparts. T. E. Lawrence’s tip number three (As quoted in Ramsey, n.d.) states:

“3. In matters of business deal only with the commander of the army, column, or party in which you serve. Never give orders to anyone at all, and reserve your directions or advice for the C.O., however great the temptation (for efficiency’s sake) of dealing with his underlings. Your place is advisory, and your advice is due to the commander alone. Let him see that this is your conception of your duty, and that his is to be the sole executive of your joint plans. (p. 4).”

As the above quote demonstrates, advisors are exactly what their name indicates, a consultant. It is up to their counterparts to make decisions and issue orders and, in fact, this is the end result desired from the advisor viewpoint. We do the counterpart no good if we usurp his authority even though, at times, it may seem the right course to take. Second, the counterpart has no real authority over the advisor. The fact that there is an advisor present is usually because of a much higher level agreement between militaries. This can cause an adversarial relationship, especially if there is asymmetry between ranks. In my particular case, I was a senior warrant officer advising a General officer. While I was able to work past the difference in rank, it took time and lot of hard work on my part to get through the indifference. Third, the advisor tends to be able to circumvent some bureaucracy, due to his access to higher levels of command. The senior military officer at a US Embassy is normally a Colonel (O-6). His counterparts are the host countries most senior officers. The advisor tends to have the ear, directly, of the senior military officer who has the ear of the host countries military command. This can work both in favor (cutting through bureaucracy) or against (fear caused by counterparts knowing of this access) the advisor.

There are many challenges associated with advisor work. The advisor must be versed in both his culture and the host nation’s culture. He must understand who commands him and where he stands within the hierarchy of his host. He has to know when to provide input and when not to. He must know how input is accepted amongst his counterparts. He needs to know when, where and how to apply pressure and when not. He needs to know what support the US government is willing to give and how far to take it. He must know when to coerce and when not to. While most military organizations have some sort of interaction with foreign nationals, they do so from a position of strength. They have something that the foreign representative wants. This could be security, food, housing or any numerous other things. An advisor offers none of this. On the contrary, he usually needs the host nation to house him, feed him and protect him. Under these conditions there must be some trade off. Otherwise, what is the motivation for the host nation entity involved to cooperate? Rapport and relationship building then becomes the greatest challenge.

Additional concerns are the legal issues involved. The Advisor tends to walk a gray area as far as the law is concerned. Not that there is not sufficient applicable law to govern what they do and how they conduct themselves. On the contrary, there is almost too much law. Military advisors are governed by International, US and HN laws. In most cases, an advisor is not likely to have all these different legal nuances explained to him, so it is incumbent upon him to conduct research. On the US side, it isn’t so gray. All senior officers and non commissioned officers know of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and, generally, if one lives by this code, this is sufficient. There is the “Posse Comitatus Act” which prohibits military members (minus certain exceptions) from being used in a law enforcement capacity. There are the annual DOD Appropriations and Authorizations Acts which define the things that the DOD has the lead in conducting. However, what is the advisors status in the host nation? Is he considered a diplomat? Is he a member of the Administrative and Technical Staff? Is their a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed between the host nation and the US?

Though not typically the case, he may have no legal status at all. It behooves the advisor to conduct research to, at least, discover the international laws that have been agreed upon between the US and the Host nation and seek legal advice (always available to military personnel). At a minimum, there will be local rules and regulations as well as social mores that he will have to identify and seek to conform to. Every installation or military camp will have its own set of rules that the advisor would be wise to follow. Nothing will cause a loss of rapport quicker than blatant disregard for the Host Nations rules, regulations, customs and courtesies.

Military Advisors are assigned to work as advisors in areas that are of interest to the US. Since they live with their counterparts, they are exposed to their counterpart’s sensitive information. In many instances, they are the only US representative in the region. In most cases, they have access to US classified information that may or may not be releasable to their counterparts. The advisor, often, does not have the appropriate containers authorized to store classified information, so he is often forced to carry it on his person at all times. This can be rather cumbersome and often forces the advisor to avoid classified information.

The greatest risk, however, remains his constant exposure to the constant queries from his counterpart for US information. In many instances, his counterpart may be a foreign intelligence officer. Additionally, advisors typically live in remote, austere camps where penetration from local insurgent groups or terrorists is likely or least plausible. These requests may seem benign, and most are, but the advisor can not afford to let his guard down either. The queries come so often that the advisor can become worn down by their insistence if he is not careful.

The most likely risk, however, is from the close relationship that develops between the advisor and his counterparts. After working for a long period of time, the advisor may become complacent. He also will likely become friends, to a degree, with these individuals. It is a fair assumption to make, that, at least, the intelligence personnel he associates with always be attempting to garner whatever information they can from the advisor. The advisor must be aware of this at all time and guard against becoming overly friendly with his counterparts. Professionalism goes along way. In Colombia, we came to an agreement with the Military for separate housing to be provided at each installation, specifically to guard against this. We found that having some sanctuary that the advisor team could, at least occasionally, retire to went along way to resolving some of these issues.

Just as there are risks for the US Government, the host nation has risks. Military Advisors are embedded with their counterparts. In order to be a functional advisor, one needs to have complete access to all aspects of operations. Though this is necessary, it is not always immediate. Few counterparts will allow an advisor immediate access to what they feel is classified information and for the same reasons that we do not. They do not trust that the advisor will not compromise their operations. The advisor must employ human relations skills in order to build rapport and develop a trusting relationship with his counterparts. Access is gained over time, never immediate. My counterpart was a good natured, General officer who had worked most of his years in Southern Colombia and was a Special Forces Officer like myself. I had to build a friendly relationship with him before I could even think of talking about operations. This meant that I had to spend a lot of time talking to him, eating with him and providing all the ancillary help (logistics, information, etc) that I could. Slowly, but surely, our relationship developed into a very strong one. He would not travel anywhere without his American advisor and felt very proud that he had one assigned to him.

The salient point is that foreign nations, even allies, do not want us to have access to all their information any more than we do. Even though foreign nations often safeguard information differently than we do, an advisor has to be very careful not to compromise his relationship over access to information. An advisor may be expected by his US command to garner information, but this must be resisted to the extent that the relationship is not compromised. All it takes is one incident involving trust and the advisor can longer function during his tour.

Another risk, and not an insignificant one, is the espionage threat that exists from the supported nations intelligence services. Advisors are at a greater risk than most others as they are embedded with the foreign unit. In most cases the advisors counterparts are, at least, the Commander, the Operations Officer (S/G/J-3) and the Intelligence Officer (S/G/J-2). I started out as an advisor to a Joint Task Force (JTF), so these three were my principal counterparts. Since the J-2 was one of my counterparts, it meant that I had to advise members of the entire J-2. This ranged from analysts to their counterintelligence officer. The advisor needs to keep an especially close eye on the later and attempt to persuade him that the advisor is not a threat. His purpose is to protect the unit and their military, essentially, from the advisor (among others). His advice to the J-2 on releasability alone caused me a significant amount of extra time and work trying to break down barriers. The J-2 is the senior intelligence representative that an advisor works with and, thus, has the most potential for being an espionage threat. They constantly, and seemingly innocently, probe the advisor for information. The advisor has an obligation to safeguard government information. His relationship and isolation make this an especially challenging job. The advisor must be constantly aware of his role and remember that, no matter how friendly they may be or what kind of relationship develops, they are still a foreign nation. It is the nature of the game for the counterpart to attempt to collect information from the advisor He must be constantly aware that this will occur and be somewhat guarded. He must learn to strike a balance between seeming aloof and building rapport.

The US Military has a reputation for wanting quick answers for everything. Reports on progress are constantly demanded, pressuring the advisor to “fill in the blanks”. They are told, on the one hand, that they must allow their counterparts to command while they advise. However, US Commanders demand results and become impatient when they don’t get them. Advisors are often put into a precarious position. Command and report or be viewed as an ineffective advisor (Ramsey, n.d., p.18).

What does all of this mean and what can be done to protect US government sensitive information? First, individuals that are to be assigned as advisors need advisor unique training. Aside from cultural awareness and orientation training, advisors need specific training on the importance of protecting classified information from espionage. They need to be informed on how foreign intelligence agencies work and what to be aware of. Further, advisors should receive special training on anti-elicitation techniques. How to respond to serious and detailed question asking is not intuitive. They need to be able to understand and recognize collection efforts directed against them and be able to react in such a way as to not divulge information while maintaining there position within the hierarchy without losing rapport. Finally, advisors should attempt to acquire separate living arrangements. They should not be superior to their counterparts, but should be separate. It is important for the advisor to have his own space so he can decompress from the foreign culture and collection efforts that surround him. Advisors should be assigned as teams, instead of individuals, where possible as he needs to be able to take a break and reconnect with US social mores and values.

Being an advisor can be a unique and rewarding experience. However, the potential for espionage is great. The US government should be proactive in assigning and training advisors in order to better prepare them for this experience. A pre-screening interview in order to determine the loyalty of an individual or psychiatric evaluations should be considered as advisors are currently assigned throughout the world engaging foreign forces of all types. We would be well advised to take the advisor role seriously.


Ramsey, R. (n.d.). Advice for Advisors: Suggestions and Observations from Lawrence to Present. Global War on Terrorism, Occasional paper 19. KS: Combat Studies Institute Press. Retrieved on 4 September, 2007 from []

Ramsey, R. (n.d.). Advising Indigenous Forces: American Advisors in Korea, Vietnam and El Salvador. Global War on Terrorism, Occasional Paper 18. KS: Combat Studies Institute Press. Retrieved on 4 September, 2007 from []

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