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Revised security question helps sexual assault victims

  • Published
  • By Cheryl Pellerin
  • American Forces Press Service
Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper today issued new guidance for a question that deals with mental health treatment on the questionnaire that must be completed by those seeking national security positions and security clearances.

In a statement issued to announce the change, Clapper said he decided to add an exemption supporting victims of sexual assault after consulting with members of Congress, Defense Department officials and those of other federal agencies, and with victim advocacy groups.

The guidance applies to Question 21 on Standard Form 86, Questionnaire for National Security Positions, which is used by military personnel and government employees and contractors to apply for a security clearance. It is effective for all executive branch departments and agencies, the director said.

The revision is the latest of about 10 changes to the mental health question made since the 1950s, said Charles Sowell, the deputy assistant director of national intelligence for special security, who spoke with reporters today during a teleconference.

Clapper said the guidance is intended to help victims of sexual assault who hold or wish to hold a government security clearance, but may be reluctant to seek mental health counseling for fear that they may have to disclose the counseling on their application.

The revision lets victims of sexual assault answer "No" to Question 21, which asks applicants if they have in the last seven years consulted with a health care professional about an emotional or mental health condition or if they were similarly hospitalized, the director said.

The formal revision is a potentially lengthy process that includes publishing proposed changes in the Federal Register, so Clapper issued this interim guidance to encourage sexual assault victims to more quickly seek mental health services they may need.

Sowell said that there are about 4.9 million cleared or eligible individuals among military service members and government employees and contractors.

Over the past two years, a working group of mental health professionals, legal experts, civil rights and civil liberties professionals, security professionals and lawyers looked at Question 21 specifically, Sowell said.

"We were trying to get away from asking about the fact of mental health counseling and getting to a question that focuses on an individual's ability to function appropriately in the workplace. ... That's really what we care about," he added.

Late last year, he said, "it became very clear that revising Question 21 in its entirety, which is Director Clapper's absolute goal here, is going to take some time to get that wording right."

As a result, Sowell added, Clapper decided to add the interim guidance in the short term to allow victims of sexual assault to answer "No" to Question 21, whether or not they've had mental health counseling, while officials completely revise the question.

The only other specific exemptions -- approved in 2008 by DOD, the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget -- are for family, grief and marital counseling unrelated to violence, and counseling after military combat service.

Clapper said the following language will be added to Question 21.2: "Please respond to this question with the following additional instruction: Victims of sexual assault who have consulted with a health care professional regarding an emotional or mental health condition during this period strictly in relation to the sexual assault are instructed to answer 'No.'"

The interim guidance instructs all agencies to make sure that all personnel are trained specifically on the contents of the policy, Clapper said. The guidance asserts that unauthorized questioning or denial of a security clearance based solely on mental health counseling would be "inconsistent with the interim policy guidance," he added.

Clapper thanked the legislators, executive branch officials and advocacy groups who supported the revision. "Through our combined efforts," he said, "victims of sexual assault will be encouraged to seek the mental health services they may need while feeling safe that their privacy protections are strictly enforced."

Sowell said the exemption has a two-fold impact.

"First, it allows victims of sexual assault to get the help that they may need and get mental health counseling without fear of losing their clearance," he said. "Second, we believe it significantly enhances national security because people who were in cleared positions and may not have been getting the help that they need can now do so. And we think that this is a great outcome."

Immediately, Sowell said, electronic questionnaires for the investigations processing system, commonly known as e-QIP, which is managed by the Office of Personnel Management, will have a pop-up window so that when an applicant reaches Question 21, a pop-up window will come up with the new guidance. Clapper is issuing a memorandum to all executive agencies and departments highlighting this change, he added.

"And we will be working with our partners throughout government, Congress, and the advocacy groups that have partnered with us on this to get the information out to constituents and stakeholders that have contacted them informally," Sowell said.

Clapper said the interim guidance reaffirms that an individual's decision to seek mental health care alone can't adversely impact his or her ability to obtain or maintain eligibility to hold a national security sensitive position or eligibility for access to classified information. Further, he said, mental health counseling alone can't form the basis of a denial of a security clearance.

"The decision to seek personal wellness and recovery should not be perceived to jeopardize an individual's security clearance and may favorably affect a person's eligibility determination," the director said.

Individuals who do answer "Yes" to Question 21 are protected by limitations on the scope of questions that background investigators are allowed to ask health care practitioners in determining whether the individual has a condition that could impair his or her judgment, reliability or ability to properly safeguard classified information, Clapper said, adding that such protections apply to all kinds of mental health counseling.

"I believe this interim policy guidance will positively impact national security," he added. "The U.S. government recognizes the critical importance of mental health and supports proactive management of mental health conditions, wellness and recovery."