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By KATHERINE SHRADER
The Bush administration last year quietly rewrote the rules for allowing gays and lesbians to receive national-security clearances, drawing complaints from civil rights activists.
The Bush administration said security clearances cannot be denied "solely on the basis of the sexual orientation of the individual." But it removed language saying sexual orientation "may not be used as a basis for or a disqualifying factor in determining a person’s eligibility for a security clearance."
The White House sought to play down the changes, approved by President Bush in December, as an effort to ensure the security clearance rules are consistent with a 1995 executive order about access to classified information.
"The minor language change did not and was not intended to alter the way sexual orientation is treated," National Security Council spokesman Frederick Jones said Tuesday. "The U.S. government policy has not changed in any way."
Jones said government lawyers made the changes for clarity.
Gay rights activists expressed concern that the new guidelines could lead to a chipping away of safeguards obtained in the 1990s for gays and lesbians seeking security-related government jobs.
Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said Bush’s rules could "open the door for broader interpretation" of rules granting security clearances for national security-related jobs.
"It is not surprising to me that this administration is continuing to roll the clock back on the most basic of protections granted by the last administration," said Solmonese, whose group advocates for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender civil rights.
Lesbian and gay advocacy groups recently found the change in an 18-page document distributed by National security adviser Stephen Hadley on Dec. 29, without public notice.
Several million civilian and military personnel who work for the U.S. government and its contractors must go through extensive reviews to determine if they’ve exhibited behavior that could compromise national security or make them susceptible to blackmail.
Areas of concern include drug and alcohol use, criminal activity, financial debt, foreign contacts and sexual behavior. Officials at several national security agencies were not immediately aware of the new rules or any impact.
Rules approved by President Clinton in 1997 said that sexual behavior may be a security concern if it involves a criminal offense, suggests an emotional disorder, could subject someone to coercion or shows a lack of judgment.
The regulation stated that sexual orientation "may not be used as a basis for or a disqualifying factor in determining a person’s eligibility for a security clearance."
Bush removed that categorical protection, saying instead that security clearances cannot be denied "solely on the basis of the sexual orientation of the individual."
The new rules say behavior that is "strictly private, consensual and discreet" could "mitigate security concerns."
Jones said the new language was meant to ensure the U.S. security clearance guidelines are consistent with Clinton’s executive order. He said the order makes clear that the U.S. government does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation when granting access to classified information.
Steve Ralls, spokesman for the Washington-based Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said his organization is still sorting out what the administration intended so that attorneys can provide guidance to gay and lesbian personnel on how to answer questions during government background checks.
"It looks as if lesbian and gay service members especially may face some additional roadblocks to obtaining their security clearances," said Ralls, whose group advocates on behalf of gays and lesbians in the military.
He said his organization has been getting calls from service members who don’t understand the changes. "In the law, subtlety can have even unintended, major consequences. We are very concerned _ and curious," he said.
On the Net:
See the National Archives and Records Administration copy of the policy: http://www.archives.gov/isoo/