The U.S. Defense Department is heeding Senator Jon Tester's call to reevaluate the national security clearance process to protect service members who sought counseling for sexual trauma.
To acquire a security clearance, job applicants must currently list whether they have received mental health counseling and if so allow an investigator access to their health records.
Tester says the current screening policy discourages qualified service members from applying for important national security positions and discourages them from getting the counseling they need. Studies show that more than 20 percent of servicewomen are sexually assaulted while serving in the military.
Under pressure from Tester, the Defense Department will now only ask job seekers' physicians if the applicant has a condition that could impair their judgment or ability to safeguard classified information. If the answer is "no,' no further questions will be asked and no additional information sought with regard to past mental health treatment.
"The previous policy was a violation of privacy and prevented America's best from serving our country," Tester said. "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."
Tester also forced the Defense Department to change the question about mental health treatment on the security questionnaire, known as the SF 86. In addition to no longer asking for treatment details, the question will now expressly say that seeking mental health counseling will not automatically impact a candidates' ability to obtain or keep a security clearance.
The Defense Department is also directing its investigators to handle all sensitive information on a strict "need-to-know" basis to prevent misuse.
Tester first contacted Defense Department Secretary Leon Panetta and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper about the issue in February after being contacted by a veteran.
"Seeking care does not constitute a valid security concern, and it is not something that should be discouraged by the very nation they fought to defend," said Tester, who heard about the lifelong effects of combat and sexual trauma at a women veterans' roundtable earlier this year in Billings.
There were as many as 19,000 instances of sexual assault in the military in 2010. While most assaults occur against women, men are affected as well.
Tester is Montana's only member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.