Counseling more private for sex assault victims

Air Force Times

by Rick Maze

Victims now have more protections when applying for security clearances

Military sexual trauma victims now have privacy protections when they apply for security clearances.

Under a new policy, they still must report any mental health counseling received because of a rape, assault or harassment, but this information will be kept private and have no bearing on whether a security clearance is given, as long as the person who provided the treatment or counseling believes the victim’s judgment, reliability and ability to safeguard classified material has not been impaired.

In a Sept. 4 memorandum announcing the change, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he wants people to seek mental health counseling if they need it without fear of losing or being denied a security clearance.

“Left untreated or unaddressed, mental health conditions may affect an individual’s judgment, reliability and trustworthiness,” Panetta wrote in the memo.

The memo was never released to the public. The first public mention of the change was made Friday by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., in a news release claiming partial credit for the new policy. Tester was one of several lawmakers pushing the Pentagon to amend a policy that he felt discouraged sexual trauma victims from seeking counseling.

“The previous policy was a violation of privacy and prevented America’s best from serving our country,” Tester said in Friday’s statement. “We need to do everything we can to support survivors of sexual assault – not keep them from getting the care they need or gaining a security clearance. This change was long overdue, and I was proud to fight for it.”

In his memo, Panetta said he wanted “to make clear that an applicant’s decision to seek mental health care should NOT, in and of itself, adversely impact that individual’s ability to obtain or maintain a national security position. In fact, seeking personal wellness and recovery may favorably impact a person’s eligibility for a national security position.”

“All information pertaining to treatment shall be handled on a strict need-to-know basis,” Panetta wrote in the memo to the services and defense agencies. Anyone misusing the information will be punished, he said.
Further changes planned

This new policy could just be an interim step in the government’s policy for handling security clearance questions for those who have sought mental health treatment.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is in the process of reviewing a proposal that could amend the government’s application for security clearances to remove the requirement to report mental health counseling for sexual trauma. Service members who receive counseling for post-traumatic stress are not currently required to report the treatment on the government-wide national security clearance application, Standard Form 86. Intelligence officials acknowledge the policy is under review but have provided no indication when or if a change could be made on Question 21 – the question on the application that deals with mental health counseling.

In practical terms, Panetta said the interim policy prevents anyone – commanders, supervisors and security managers – from asking a security clearance applicant for more than the date and location of the counseling or treatment for mental health, and the name of the counselor or health care professional who provided it. Credentialed security investigators may ask the person who provided the counseling “if the person under investigation has a condition that would impair judgment, reliability or ability to properly safeguard classified national security information,” Panetta wrote.

If the answer is “no,” then no further questions can be asked, Panetta says. This is a clarification of previous policy that made it sound as if further questions could be pursued no matter what answer was provided about the patient’s judgment.

Although sexual assault counseling is the chief reason for the policy announcement, Panetta says the same rules apply to all types of mental health counseling and treatment. “The U.S. government recognizes the critical importance of mental health and supports proactive management of health conditions, wellness and recovery,” he says.