WASHINGTON – The White House said Wednesday a revised policy on granting security clearances to gays and lesbians does not reflect a change in how the government will treat sexual orientation.
But several Democrats denounced the new rules.
"The Bush administration is waging a covert war on loyal federal employees who happen to be gay," said California Rep. Henry Waxman, the top Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee.
The administration rewrote a 1997 regulation that had said sexual orientation "may not be used as a basis" for denying clearances or determining whether individuals should be eligible to access to classified information unless it could make them vulnerable to coercion or exploitation.
President Bush's updated language says security clearances cannot be denied "solely on the basis of the sexual orientation of the individual."
If sexual behavior is "strictly private, consensual and discreet," that could lessen security concerns, according to the regulations that came as part of an update to clearance guidelines distributed in December.
Gay rights activists said the change could open the door to added attention on sexual orientation — and discrimination.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the new language stems from a 1995 executive order aimed at preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation. He insisted no language has been removed and that the new rules are similar to the old ones.
"There's no change in our policy," McClellan said. "I think that they updated the language to reflect exactly what was spelled out in the executive order."
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Susan Collins, R-Maine, and House Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis, R-Va., both requested briefings on the issue, their aides said.
Others lawmakers were more critical.
Waxman and Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., said the revisions come as the administration has refused to enforce a policy that protects federal employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation. The administration has rejected the allegations.
Frank, who is gay, said the administration is taking a step backward by changing the Clinton-era protections on security clearances. Frank said it is too soon to know the impact.
"Of course, sexual misbehavior could be a grounds for denying a security clearance," he said. "But that's irrelevant as to whether the misbehavior is gay or straight, unless you think that sexual behavior by gay people is inherently misbehavior."
A second openly gay lawmaker, Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., urged the White House to rescind the guidelines. "Sexual orientation has no relevance to a person's reliability, trustworthiness or ability to protect classified information," she said.
Several million civilian and military personnel have security clearances that require lengthy background checks. Investigators look at whether applicants have shown signs, including drug use, criminal activity and sexual behavior, that they could be a security risk.
Steve Ralls, spokesman for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said his organization is going to watch closely to be sure the White House follows through on its assurances about the new rules.
"We want to be sure sexual orientation is not used as a road block for security clearance approval," said Ralls, whose group advises gay military personnel on how to answer questions during the background checks.