Sexual assault victims will no longer have to disclose related counseling on applications for national security clearance, National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper announced Friday.
"I believe that this interim policy guidance will positively impact national security," Clapper said in a statement. He thanked those who had been working on the issue for "their oversight and support of victims of sexual assault who may benefit from mental health treatment, but may not have otherwise sought treatment out of concern for their career or security clearance."
The guidance allows victims to answer no to Question 21 on the standard form, which asks applicants if they have consulted a health care professional or been hospitalized for an "emotional or mental health condition" in the past seven years. Prior to Clapper's decision, only counseling received for family, grief or marital issues not related to violence and counseling for "post-military combat service" were exempt from disclosure.
The decision also reaffirms that seeking mental health services cannot serve as the grounds for unauthorized questioning or denying or removing security clearance.
Victims, advocates and members of Congress have argued that Question 21 was a major deterrent to reporting sexual assault, in particular for members of the military -- in which an estimated 19,000 sexual assaults occur each year -- who often go on to serve in government jobs requiring security clearance.
The change follows a comprehensive review of the previous policy, conducted by members of Congress, the Department of Defense and advocacy groups. According to the statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Clapper issued the guidance at this time to encourage victims to seek services immediately, as the formal revision of the security application may be a lengthy process.
The Service Women's Action Network (SWAN) worked closely with Clapper's office on the policy change.
"This change is a huge victory for survivors of military sexual assault," said SWAN Executive Director Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine Corps captain. "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. 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."
Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, another advocacy group that worked closely with Clapper, 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."
Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.), a leader in the effort to reform the application, applauded the decision Friday.
"Before this change, our offices had consistently heard from individuals who chose not to seek treatment for fear of being denied security clearance and career advancement," Tsongas said in a statement sent to The Huffington Post. "I hope that this change will stop this dangerous trend and give MST [military sexual trauma] survivors a clearer avenue to receive assistance."
Question 21.2 will be amended with the following:
"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."
This story has been updated with comment from Protect Our Defenders.