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DoD still wants clearance rule changed

Oct. 17, 2011 - 11:34AM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 17, 2011 - 11:34AM  |  
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The Defense Department continues to urge a change in security clearance questionnaires so that military rape and sexual assault victims are not required to report any counseling they may have received for sexual trauma, even though a senior official said he sees no evidence that anyone receiving such counseling has been denied a clearance.

"Our review of background investigations adjudicated by the central clearance facility revealed no adverse security clearance action has been taken based on the fact that an individual sought mental health counseling as a result of sexual assault," Army Secretary John McHugh said in an Oct. 7 written response to an email he received about the issue.

But McHugh acknowledged the possibility that some victims may decide not to seek counseling for fear they would have to report it on the interagency questionnaire for receiving or renewing a security clearance.

McHugh's comments responded to an email he received Sept. 30, which was forwarded to Military Times. The sender did not provide full identification information and cut off contact after forwarding the email. McHugh's staff verified that the secretary wrote and signed the response.

At issue is a question on the form, SF 86, that asks applicants for the date and reason for any mental health counseling. The form also requires applicants to give permission to review medical records to federal investigators doing background investigations.

Counseling for combat-related stress or mental issues does not have to be reported, an exemption added specifically so troops would not fear losing their security clearance by admitting they got help for post-traumatic stress. The form also exempts disclosure of marital, family or grief counseling, as long as the applicant is not being counseled for violent behavior.

Greg Jacob, policy director for the Service Women's Action Network, said his group often hears from military sexual assault victims who worry that seeking counseling will hurt their careers. Despite McHugh's statement that officials have not found anyone who was hurt by the current policy, Jacob said several women had claimed they lost clearances because they disclosed receiving counseling for sexual trauma.

SWAN would like to see the exemption expanded so that any counseling related to military service — not just for combat stress — would not have to be reported on the security clearance form and could not be used to deny a clearance, Jacob said.

McHugh said in the letter that he and Michael Vickers, the Pentagon's intelligence chief, have asked for a "policy clarification" that would consider sexual trauma counseling the same as grief counseling for clearance purposes. They made the request to retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James Clapper, director of national intelligence.

"As much as I would like to, I cannot unilaterally change the current policies in this area," McHugh wrote.

While awaiting a policy change, McHugh said he will continue pushing to "remove any perceived stigma associated with seeking or reporting mental health treatment."

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