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Federal Employee Rule Change Alarms Gay-Rights Groups

by Michelle Chen

Mar. 17, 2006 – A subtle change in the rules granting access to sensitive national-security information has alarmed gay-rights advocates, who fear that a slight revision could turn the walls guarding government secrets into discriminatory barriers.

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The Bush administration has come under fire for a revision to the guidelines that officially control government employees’ access to information. The previous version of the rules known as the Adjudicative Guidelines for Determining Eligibility for Access to Classified Information provided that sexual orientation "may not be used as a basis" for determining one’s eligibility to access classified information.

The new rules, based on recommendations from the National Security Council and initially published in December 2005, state that in determining an individual’s eligibility for clearance, a negative assessment cannot be made "solely on the basis of the sexual orientation of the individual." Gay-rights groups say that the added caveat makes it easier for anti-gay sentiments to tip administrative decisions.

"Subtle changes can have drastic consequences for gay Americans looking to serve their country," said Joe Solmonese, president of the gay-rights organization Human Rights Campaign (HRC). The group demanded a full explanation from the government in a statement released Tuesday.

While the prior guidelines for national-security clearance background checks, enacted in 1997, explicitly barred sexual orientation as a factor in determining eligibility, they did allow – without specifically referring to sexual orientation – discrimination based on "sexual behavior" that could make an employee vulnerable to coercion, violate the law or otherwise negatively impact an employee’s capacity, in the view of government assessors.

The new language has drawn criticism for suggesting that a gay individual’s identity could be used as a factor when assessing whether an employee meets the sexual-behavior criteria.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan has insisted that the language change was intended only to clarify -- not overwrite -- the earlier rules.

But some gay-rights groups remain wary, viewing the change as part of what they see as a pattern of silencing and restricting queers in the workplace.

In a press statement, Sharra E. Greer, director of law and policy with Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, pledged that the organization "will closely monitor how the new guidelines are interpreted and work to ensure that sexual orientation is not used as a roadblock for security clearance approval." The group, which opposes sexuality-based discrimination against federal employees, has mainly campaigned around another controversially worded administrative policy, the so-called "don’t ask, don’t tell" rule that has gagged gay, lesbian and bisexual military personnel.

Last year, Office of Special Counsel head Scott Bloch riled gay-rights activists when he departed from past federal administrative policies protecting employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation. When questioned at a Senate hearing about legal remedies for employees impacted by anti-gay bias, Bloch testified that the statutes protecting people from racial and gender discrimination do not apply to sexual orientation, and that his office would consider the treatment of queer sexuality as a separate legal issue related to sexual "conduct" -- not orientation.

Bloch also admitted ordering the removal of statements and educational materials regarding sexuality-based discrimination from the website of the Office of Special Counsel. Bloch’s legal interpretation stirred public outcry and even prompted criticism from the White House.

Rob Sadler, a board member of Federal GLOBE, a network of queer support groups for federal employees, was quoted in a Thursday Washington Blade report as saying that although the impact of the new guidelines is still unclear, the verbal tweak could indirectly facilitate bias.

"While they're not looking specifically at the person's orientation, what they may be looking at is behavior associated with that orientation, upon which they could deny the security clearance," he said. Sadler noted that in some cases when employees have lied about their sexual orientation, the non-disclosure has triggered denial of clearance on the basis of a lack of credibility.

Casting doubt on the White House’s claim that the revised rule was consistent with the previous regulations, Greer commented, "If the National Security Council did not intend to make a consequential change by altering existing language, why did it change the guidelines at all?"

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

This News Report originally appeared in the March 17, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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