SWAN’s policy team headed to the Hill once again on a mission to engage with House and Senate offices on the many issues facing military sexual assault survivors, and the issue of exempting disclosure of mental health counseling due to sexual assaults on the SF86 Form remained a top priority. We have been pleased at the level of interest and engagement that legislators have had on the Question 21 issue, and are encouraged that the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, has announced he intends to implement a solution to this problem. We are concerned, however, that the course of action proposed by Director Clapper may not do the trick.
Question 21 on the SF86 form requires anyone seeking a security clearance to disclose any mental health counseling they have received in the past seven years, and to allow security clearance investigators access to health records and permission to conduct personal interviews regarding the specific details of the sexual assault. Such an investigation is intrusive, subjects the sexual assault survivor to re-traumatization, creates a barrier that prevents the survivor from seeking much needed care from medical professionals, and discourages them from reporting their assault to authorities. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) has recognized the invasive nature of these investigations and created exceptions for certain types of counseling, such as marital or grief counseling, and at the urging of the Pentagon the ODNI added an exception for counseling due to combat related mental health issues in 2008.
The Pentagon asked ODNI to create the combat counseling exception for a couple of reasons: To reduce the stigma in the armed forces commonly associated with mental health counseling, to encourage troops who suffer from combat-related mental health issues to seek care, and in recognition of the fact that someone who needs mental help but is not getting it poses a far greater risk in the handling of classified material than someone who has gotten the help they need. All of these reasons equally apply to service members who have received counseling as a result of sexual assault.
Up until the combat exception was created in 2008, service members who were experiencing mental health issues due to combat were not seeking out the help they needed out of concern that disclosure of counseling and the ensuing investigation would cause the service member to lose his or her security clearance and thus put their career in jeopardy.
The Pentagon has recommended no such exception for mental health counseling from sexual assaults and as a result the same situation that existed for combat troops prior to 2008 exists for military sexual assault survivors today. The bottom line is this: Question 21 on the SF86 creates a barrier that prevents troops from seeking out the mental healthcare they need.
Additionally, Question 21 also discourages survivors from reporting their assaults. According to the DOD, 85% of sexual assaults go unreported every year. This lack of reporting not only prevents the survivor from accessing much needed medical care, but it also prevents military authorities from investigating and prosecuting sex offenders in their units, thus leaving perpetrators free to rape their fellow service members with impunity.
The DOD has repeatedly said there is a “zero tolerance policy” towards sexual assault in the military. If that is true, then the DOD would make removing every institutional barrier that prevents these crimes from being reported a priority, and that would include removing the requirement to disclose sexual assault counseling on Question 21 of the SF86 form immediately.
Due to the courage of individuals affected by this policy stepping up and speaking out, and through advocacy efforts by groups like SWAN, the pressure being put on ODNI to change Question 21 has increased tremendously, and just last month the Director of National Intelligence announced he intends to take action.
According to a recent letter sent to Congress, Director Clapper announced he intends on rewriting Question 21. This is a different course of action than the ODNI took in 2008 to create the combat counseling exclusion, so the focus is now shifting to ensure the rewritten Q21 will accomplish the same things as the 2008 policy change.
On its face, rewriting the question would appear to be a quicker solution than changing the underlying policy, but in truth, the process of rewriting the question comes very close to the process that a policy change would undergo.
According to the process outlined in his letter, Director Clapper is now waiting for the DOD to submit its “official coordinated position” on the issue. This will require DOD to consult with the services. Once that position statement is received by ODNI, Clapper will begin the “interagency coordination process” by which Clapper will seek input from other affected agencies and interested parties. Since the SF86 form is in use by all federal agencies that require security clearances, he will be reaching out to quite a few offices. According to Clapper, this collaborative step in the process is critical, and designed to maintain confidence in and ensure the integrity of the federal personnel security program. After ODNI gathers this input from the services, the DOD, federal agencies and other interested parties, it will all be taken into consideration as Clapper moves forward.
Once the question is rewritten by ODNI, SWAN in partnership with our allies in Congress will take a hard look at the new language to see if the new Question 21 accomplishes the same thing as the 2008 combat exception. If it does, that’s good news. If it does not, then we are committed to continue to work towards proper reform.
As this process moves forward, SWAN is keeping the issue on the front burner by continuing to engage legislators to keep pressure on DOD and ODNI. Most recently, SWAN has engaged members of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee on the Question 21 issue and they have communicated the urgent need for change to both Secretary Panetta and Director Clapper. This is in addition to the letters already sent by members of the House Armed Services as well as other concerned members of Congress.
Change is coming, but it needs your help. Join in the reform effort by contacting your legislators as well as the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence directly. Urge them to provide an exception for sexual assault counseling to Question 21 on the SF86 form. Tell them why this is important to you and demand that all our brave service members get the care they need while at the same time the defense establishment can take a meaningful step towards the elimination of sexual violence in the military.
Together we will make this happen!
The Honorable James R. Clapper, Jr
Office of the Director of National Intelligence
Washington, DC 20511
The Honorable Leon Panetta
Department of Defense
1000 Defense Pentagon
Washington, DC 20301
Find your members of Congress here