Mental health inquiries proposed to be limited


WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration wants to limit mental health questions in federal employee background checks, saying the current system violates the privacy rights of job applicants.

The policy, unveiled yesterday by Tipper Gore, the wife of Vice President Gore, would focus psychiatric inquiries solely on an applicant's recent past, eliminate reporting about marriage counseling and other short-term therapy and allow mental health questions only as they relate to job performance.

"I personally do not believe people who receive mental health treatment, in the broadest general sense, represent any more of a security risk than somebody that receives treatment from a cardiologist or an oncologist or an allergist," Mrs. Gore said in a speech at the National Press Club.

The background check applies to any federal worker requiring a security clearance. In addition to employees who will handle secret information, federal investigators also question applicants for White House executive office jobs, national security posts and certain congressional committee positions.

The FBI conducts most background checks for sensitive government positions. Mrs. Gore said those investigations can be intrusive.

"Up until now, investigators have been able to ask any question they wanted to of people," she said. "I mean, all kinds of very personal questions that we . . . should abhor."

The administration's proposal sets parameters on the kinds of mental health questions that can be asked in order to protect applicants' privacy, she said.

Although the regulations were drafted with input from several government agencies, the FBI defended its security clearance system.

FBI spokesman Bill Carter says the current line of questioning achieves its purpose -- to find out more about a person who will handle top secret information.

"The goal is, basically, to make sure that the individuals who are appointed are who they say they are," he says. "The background investigations . . . focus on an individual's substantive abilities."

Applicants for sensitive federal jobs are asked about their mental health histories on an FBI questionnaire known as "Standard Form 86." The agency asks: "Have you experienced problems on or off the job because of any emotional or mental condition?"

The form also asks if applicants have ever sought counseling after quitting a job or getting fired.

The new rules on background checks would apply not only to federal job applicants but also to government employees who change jobs or get promotions. The administration's proposals limit repeat investigations for an individual employee.

Federal agencies have one month to critique the proposed rules, which require no enabling legislation by Congress. In the fall, Maryland's nearly 300,000 government employees will have a chance to comment on the proposals.

If the reaction of the largest federal workers union is any indication, the proposals are likely to be a big hit among employees.

"The government starts to classify more and more people as . . . sensitive and over time it can get to be a little ridiculous," says Mark Roth, general counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees.

"For the most part, there aren't any checks and balances on the investigators' authority," he adds. "You find someone sitting in a windowless room coming up with all these crazy hypotheticals."

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