WASHINGTON — Victims of sexual assault can get mental health counseling without disclosing it on applications for U.S. government security clearance under a new policy set by the director of national intelligence.
The guidance, effective immediately, seeks to counter a perception that disclosing such counseling would jeopardize the clearance needed for sensitive government positions, Charles Sowell, deputy assistant director for special security, said Friday.
“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 on a conference call with reporters.
The revision mostly affects Defense Department employees and applicants, who make up about 85 percent of those completing the government’s standard security screening questionnaire, Sowell said.
The Pentagon has estimated there are about 19,000 sexual assaults a year in the military, based on anonymous surveys of the active-duty force, though the number of reported cases each year is smaller.
“This will save careers,” said Jennifer Norris, who left the Maine Air National Guard after having to disclose counseling she received for a rape and several assaults. “I should never have had to tell them to begin with.”
Question No. 21 on the screening questionnaire for national security positions asks whether an applicant has consulted a health care professional for an emotional or mental health condition in the past seven years. The new guidance includes an instruction directing victims of sexual assault who receive counseling for the assault to answer “no.”
“We’ve changed that question repeatedly to keep up with the times,” Sowell said, citing exemptions already in place for those who receive family, marriage or grief counseling.
A broader, more formal review of the counseling question is under way and “is going to take some time to get that wording right,” he said.
“Today’s announcement from the federal government is a major victory for our brave men and women in uniform that have been raped or sexually assaulted,” said Nancy Parrish, president of Protect our Defenders, a victims’ advocacy group.
“Too many survivors have been denied security clearance for reporting their sexual assault, and these changes begin to fix this wrong,” Parrish said in a statement.
Hundreds of thousands of employees or applicants complete the government’s Standard Form 86 questionnaire each year, Sowell said. Employees with secret-level clearances must be reinvestigated every 10 years, while those with top-secret clearances must be re-examined every five years, according to Sowell.
“I believe that this interim policy guidance will positively impact national security,” James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said in a statement. “The U.S. government recognizes the critical importance of mental health and supports proactive management of mental health conditions, wellness and recovery.”
Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, applauded the move.
“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. I’m glad that DNI Clapper has listened to our concerns,” Pingree said.