Tuesday January 03, 2012 | 03:53 PM

A response to Rep. Chellie Pingree from a high-ranking intelligence official is giving hope to advocates who say that service members victimized by sexual assault shouldn’t have to report resulting mental health treatment to gain a government security clearance.

Pingree, D-1st District, has been involved in issues surrounding military sexual assault for some time, including initiatives to ease the path to disability benefits for veterans who suffered sexual assault during their time in the military.

Now Pingree, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, has joined a campaign to alter the requirements of “Question 21” of the federal “Questionnaire for National Security Positions.”

The question asks whether a person has received mental health counseling in the past seven years. In 2008 and exemption was granted that gave an exemption to military members who received counseling as a result of combat-related trauma. That allowed a service member or former service member to answer “no” to Question 21 if there counseling was a result of combat.

Pingree is among those who want to extend that exemption to military sexual assault-related counseling.

Military sexual assault is a big but often hidden problem, say Pingree and advocates. Knowing that getting counseling for it could interfere later with obtaining a security clearance can keep people from getting the help they need, they say.

Last month, Pingree got a letter from James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence. In his formal letter Clapper said that his staff was working on the issue with the Department of Defense, and noted that what they did would apply government-wide, not just to the Department of Defense. He added that the issue would be addressed “as expeditiously as possible” and that it had his personal attention.

But in a personal note written below his signature, Clapper added that he’s “very familiar with this issue, and am personally supportive of what you are urging.”

After Pingree got that Dec. 7 letter from Clapper, she followed up with a Dec. 15 letter to Michael Vickers, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence who Clapper said his staff was working with on the Question 21 military sexual assault exemption issue.

Pingree hasn’t heard back yet from Vickers, but advocates who have been working on the issue, such as the non-profit Service Women’s Action Network, say they are heartened by the progress they seem to be making, and by Clapper’s response.

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Kevin Miller is Washington bureau chief for the Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media. He has worked as a journalist in Maine for 6 ½ years, covering the environment, politics and the State House. Before arriving in Maine, he wrote about politics, government and education for newspapers in Virginia and Maryland.
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