In the award-winning television show, Homeland, the main character, played by Clare Danes, works for the C.I.A. while dealing with her bipolar disorder. Unfortunately we don’t currently live in the reality of Homeland. Individuals with mental health conditions are often either denied security clearances or fail the personnel suitability test – the two litmus tests an individual must clear before being granted a top-level security clearance necessary for employment in jobs that handle sensitive or classified materials, such as Carrie Mathison’s job with the C.I.A. in Homeland. True she loses her security clearance, but she is still privy to top-secret information and part of top-secret operations.
The security clearance application, the SF86, requires disclosure of the vast majority of reasons for obtaining counseling or treatment. Question 21 on the SF86 regards mental health is prefaced with wording from Executive Order 12968, which states that “no negative inference concerning the standards in this section may be raised solely on the basis of mental health counseling“. However, the whole premise of the addition of Question 21 was the perceived security concern that a psychological condition or those on medication with side-effects, “adversely affects a person’s judgment and behavior, such things as disappointment, failure, or perceived injustice or betrayal may cause reactions that are irresponsible, self-destruction, retaliatory, and/or unlawful,” which can result in “willful or negligent compromise of classified information, violence, sabotage or espionage.” This is an antiquated evaluation of mental health and doesn’t take into account that people who exhibit such behavior may not have a diagnosis, may have never gotten treatment or may have lied on Question 21 to avoid exposure.
Willful omissions on Question 21 are prevalent among applicants or employees undergoing regular security clearance review. This prompts the question, ‘what types of people is the national security profession really attracting and retaining?’ Question 21 is also a major deterrent for individuals seeking employment in national security to get counseling or treatment and for current employees in the field for seeking mental health care. Army questionnaires repeatedly show that a fear of losing a security clearance is the top reason that soldiers don’t seek counseling.
Those who disclose having received help from a counselor or entered treatment must disclose their whole psychiatric history and obtain notes from all their mental health providers that answer the following three questions: (1) Does the person under investigation have a condition that could impair his or her judgment, reliability or ability to properly safeguard classified national security information?; (2) If so, describe the nature of the condition and the extent and duration of the impairment or treatment.; and (3) What is the prognosis? Even if the practitioners answer “no” on the first question, the applicant may be required to complete a medical release form which is used to obtain more detailed information regarding medication, other treatment, test results and medical opinions regarding health, recovery and/or rehabilitation. An applicant may also be forced to undergo a medical evaluation by an army intelligence officer whom is also a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist.
Under the current structure of obtaining and maintaining a national security clearance, there are too few exceptions under Question 21, meaning that someone getting treatment for depression triggers a process where a person’s entire personal medical health history is up for dissection and review. Employees with personality disorders and bipolar disorder trigger more intense security and often are rejected. Behavioral patterns as exhibited by Carrie Mathison on Homeland, such as impulsiveness, risk-seeking, unstable relationships and suicidal behavior are listed in the guidelines on disqualifying conditions for a U.S. security clearance. Those patterns, according to the guidelines are prominent among those who have committed espionage. Clearly a review of Question 21 and its relevant implementation guidelines need review; they provide disincentives for those in national security positions or those pursuing them to seek treatment, which should be a greater cause for concern among the national security community than someone who does seek treatment and discloses the full extent of their treatment. Brilliance often comes with psychological issues and can the national security community really afford to dismiss a large sector of the population and retain those who have lied or denied their need for treatment?