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Clearance form now lets sexual assault victims keep counseling private

Apr. 5, 2013 - 11:00AM   |  
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New guidance was issued Friday allowing sexual assault victims to avoid having to reveal mental health counseling when applying for government security clearances.

The change is aimed at ensuring sexual assault victims do not avoid getting counseling out of fear they would have to disclose this information and that their security clearance might be jeopardized.

Issued as interim guidance while final policies are set in place, the new rules allow sexual assault victims to answer “No,” when asked on the government's security clearance questionnaire if they have received mental health treatment in the last seven years.

“Previously, the only exemptions were for family, grief and marital counseling unrelated to violence, and counseling for post-military combat service,” according to a statement issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

James Clapper, the retired Air Force lieutenant general who serves as the nation's intelligence czar, said the government “recognizes the critical importance of mental health and supports proactive management of mental health conditions, wellness and recovery.” Clapper's statement also says he believes the change “will positively impact national security.”

Without the change, Clapper says some sexual assault victims “may not have otherwise sought treatment out of concern for their career or security clearance.”

Clapper singled out the Service Women's Action Network and Protect our Defenders, two nonprofit groups representing military sexual assault victims, for pushing for the change, and also credited Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Democratic Reps. Chellie Pingree of Maine and Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts for their involvement.

Pingree said in a statement that she is happy her concerns were heard by Clapper. “Requiring victims of sexual assault to declare that they've been receiving counseling on this questionnaire has been discouraging them from getting the treatment they need,” she said.

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“A security clearance is critical to many military careers, and having to reveal counseling for sexual assault forces personnel to feel like they have to choose between their mental health and their careers,” Pingree said.

Clapper's guidance, binding on all federal agencies, holds that seeking mental health care “alone cannot adversely impact the individual's ability to obtain or maintain eligibility to hold a national security-sensitive position or eligibility for access to classified information,” said the intelligence office statement.

“Mental health counseling alone cannot form the basis of a denial of a security clearance, “the statement says. “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.”

For those who answer “yes” to the counseling question, investigators may talk to the professional who provided the care to determine if the applicant has a problem that could impair judgment or reliability. This information is not to be shared, and Clapper's guidance reaffirms what intelligence officials said is existing policy for privacy protection.

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