Receiving treatment for a sexual assault will no longer harangue the process for getting or keeping a security clearance, the U.S. government's top intelligence official said Friday.
All executive departments, including the CIA and the military, will not require those who have received mental health counseling for sexual assault to answer "yes" to Question 21 on the standard form for security clearances, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper announced Friday morning. This question is designed to weed out recipients of counseling who might not be capable of protecting classified information.
Treatment for sexual assault now joins other counseling that does not preclude an applicant from passing the "Questionnaire for National Security Positions," such as for family, grief or marital counseling, or stress from combat service.
"We are trying to get away from the fact of mental health counseling, and getting to an individual's ability to function in the work place," said Charles Sowell, deputy assistant director for Special Security at the ODNI. "That's what we really care about: Can you protect national security information?"
This facet of guarding security clearances has changed roughly 10 times since the 1950s, Sowell told reporters Friday morning, to keep up with changing stigmas toward mental health treatment. Question 21 used to encompass a broad range of mental health afflictions, including hospitalization, "which is far more severe," he said.
Then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in January 2012 that as many as 19,000 sexual assaults actually take place in the military per year. Just over 3,000 were reported in 2011.
Roughly 4.9 million people hold security clearances in the federal government. Those with a top secret clearance must be reinvestigated every 5 years. Secret clearances must be re-upped every 10 years.
Answering "yes" to Question 21 did not preclude an applicant from maintaining a clearance, Sowell added, but rather flagged that person for individual review. Only about .002 percent of those who answered "yes" because of mental health treatment for sexual assault became ineligible for a clearance, he said.
But a stigma persisted throughout the Pentagon and other top security positions that an affirmative answer to the question would torpedo any chances of keeping a clearance.
"The longer this went on, the more clear it was we needed to do something to create relief for the victims of sexual assault," Sowell said. ODNI has worked with the Office of Personnel Management, the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of the Vice President to institute the change, along with multiple members of Congress.
Much of the awareness of the issue has been championed by the Service Women's Action Network, which focuses on eliminating discrimination, harassment and assault from military culture.
"This change is a huge victory for survivors of military sexual assault," said Anu Bhagwati, SWAN executive director and a former captain in the Marine Corps.
"From numerous calls we receive on our Helpline, we know that Question 21 has kept survivors from seeking the critical mental health services they have needed to heal in the aftermath of sexual assault," she said, according to a media release. "We applaud Director Clapper and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence for making this sensible correction to an unjust protocol that served to further traumatize survivors, and will keep a close eye on implementation of this change."
Friday's announcement comes during Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month at the Department of Defense.
"Each of us must help the department eliminate the scourge of sexual assault from the military," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a video statement on Tuesday. "Servicemembers, civilians and leaders at every level must work every day to instill a climate that does not tolerate or ignore sexist behavior, sexual harassment or sexual assault."
Test takers will receive the following new language for Question 21, and will be notified of the change from test administrators or a pop-up screen for electronic versions:
"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."
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This story was amended to include comment from the Service Women's Action Network.