WASHINGTON — President Clinton officially ordered an end Friday to the Cold War-era prohibition against granting security clearances to gays.
The action formally eliminates a policy dating to a time when the country was greatly concerned about the spread of communism and when gays were believed to be vulnerable to blackmail and thus were thought to be security risks.
Although the policy had been relaxed substantially within many federal agencies in recent years, it was still used occasionally by particular supervisors or administrators, according to gay-rights organizations.
"This codifies a change that has been happening piecemeal, bit-by-bit for about 20 years and finally closes all the doors to discriminating against gay men and lesbians in the area of security clearances," said John D'Emilio, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina who has written about the rule that dates back more than four decades.
The original policy began with a loyalty program during the Harry S. Truman Administration. It was later formally set down in an executive order issued by President Dwight D. Eisenhower making "sexual perversion" a basis for exclusion from federal service.
Clinton's 13-page executive order adds the words "sexual orientation" to the non-discrimination clause covering access to classified material and says: "No inference concerning the standards in this section may be raised solely on the basis of the sexual orientation of the employee."
The order establishes the first uniform standards for federal agencies in issuing security clearances and requires all the agencies to recognize each other's security clearances.
"The order completes a process of careful honing, spurred by findings of the Joint Security Commission in February, 1994, by the intelligence and national defense agencies in their reviews of such espionage cases as that of Aldrich Ames," White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said in a statement.
An executive order has the force of law but Congress can act to change or overturn it.
In 1975, the Civil Service Commission issued guidelines prohibiting the government from denying jobs on the basis of sexual orientation, but the issue of security clearances remained confused.
Last March, a General Accounting Office study found that eight government departments and agencies had all but abandoned the policy of denying such clearances to gays.
These included the departments of Defense, Energy and State; the FBI; the Secret Service; the Office of Personnel Management; the U.S. Information Agency and the U.S. Customs Service.
Clinton's action was praised by gay rights organizations and others and attacked by conservative groups.
Robert Maginnis, a retired lieutenant colonel who serves as an analyst for the Family Research Council, called the action "a moral slap in the face to the traditional family.
"The reason why homosexuality has raised a red flag in security clearances is because in all healthy societies, homosexuality is recognized as a pathology with very serious implications for a person's behavior," Maginnis said. "And even more importantly for security concerns, this is a behavior that is associated with a lot of anti-security markers, such as drug/alcohol abuse, promiscuity and violence."
But Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), one of three openly gay members of Congress, said that such concerns are not valid.
"We all know that innumerable lesbians and gay men have served their country loyally and well throughout its history without betraying its trust or giving away its secrets," Frank said. "But, shamefully, until now the federal government was unwilling to acknowledge this fact."
Franklin E. Kameny, a Washington paralegal who has represented hundreds of individuals in cases involving security clearances for gays, said that the move "represents a change as from night unto day and would have been beyond the wildest expectations of anyone years back. "While we have, bit by bit, forced them to pull back since 1975, we never would have imagined or expected an affirmative protection such as this; it is a major cause for celebration," he said. "Having said that, we will still have to remain vigilant for the next several years to see how the whole thing plays itself out."
Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, called the action "an important step toward ending governmentally sanctioned job discrimination against gay and lesbian people." And Leonard Hirsh, president of Federal GLOBE, an organization of gay federal employees, said that his group plans to work to ensure that the new rules are followed.