The Obama Administration is trying to revamp how the government approaches mental health issues in the security clearance process — but security and mental health experts say the proposed fix may open the door to new problems.
Last month, the administration officially proposed rewording the standard mental-health question asked of all those applying for or renewing a clearance to handle classified information.
While the current question asks about professional treatment or hospitalization for “an emotional or mental health condition,” the proposed new one would ask applicants if “you had a mental health condition that would cause an objective observer to have concern about your judgment, reliability, or trustworthiness in relation to your work?”
Physicians and security professionals aren’t sure the change would produce reliable information on the nearly 5 million federal workers and private-sector employees who presently hold security clearances. And they say it could also pose a challenge for agencies seeking to show that an employee lied on his or her application.
The rather wordy new question goes on to add that “Evidence of such a condition could include exhibiting behavior that was emotionally unstable, irresponsible, dysfunctional, violent, paranoid, or bizarre; receiving an opinion by a duly qualified mental health professional that you had a condition that might impair judgment, reliability, or trustworthiness; or failing to follow treatment advice related to a diagnosed emotional, mental, or personality condition (e.g., failure to take prescribed medication). These examples are merely illustrative. Merely consulting a mental health professional is not, standing alone, evidence of such a condition.”
Some security experts question the shift from a fairly straightforward, black-and-white question to one that calls for shades-of-gray judgment, open to different interpretations from different people.
”I think it’s really peculiar and might cause more questions than it provides solutions,” said Sheldon Cohen, an attorney who represents federal employees and contractors in security clearance disputes. “The [current] question is an objective thing. The change they’ve proposed just, I think, muddies the water….I don’t think it’s going to produce any kind of realistic improvement.”
“If someone answers no and someone else says an ‘objective observer’ would have said yes, are they guilty of falsifying their application?” Cohen asked.
“It is an understandable change but risks making the question useless as a practical matter,” said Stewart Baker, a former National Security Agency general counsel and former assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security.
Even some who have urged the government to take a new approach to mental health in the clearance process say the new question may not be the right way to do it.
Former Army psychiatrist Elspeth Ritchie called the effort “a step forward,” but lacking in clarity. “I will say that it’s really confusing right now and I think the concern about whether this would make it more confusing is a valid concern.”
Ritchie, now the chief clinical officer for the D.C. Department of Mental Health, said the federal government needs to consider whether it’s worthwhile to ask applicants directly about mental health issues at all.
“If there is a value added, I haven’t seen any literature or any data that says it….I haven’t seen any value added of that question to detecting spies,” Ritchie said. “Having any question about mental health counseling perpetuates a stigma about counseling and is a barrier to treatment.”
Officials at the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment for this story, saying it would be improper to do so as the government seeks public comments on the proposed change.