WASHINGTON The top U.S. military officer, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, tried on Tuesday to calm anger that erupted after he described homosexual acts as immoral, saying he was expressing only his personal views.
Gay rights activists and Democrats criticized the chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff for his comments and a veteran Republican senator voiced his disagreement.
"I believe homosexual acts between two individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts," Pace said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune published on Tuesday.
"I do not believe the United States is well served by a policy that says it is okay to be immoral in any way."
Pace was explaining why he supported the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays serving in the military, signed into law in 1993 by then-President Bill Clinton.
Under the policy, commanders may not ask the sexual orientation of service members, but gays and lesbians can serve only if they keep their sexual orientation private and do not engage in homosexual acts.
Later, Pace issued a statement saying he had made a mistake in devoting so much time to his personal views.
"In expressing my support for the current policy, I also offered some personal opinions about moral conduct," he said. "I should have focused more on my support of the policy and less on my personal moral views."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, asked about his own view of the policy, said personal opinion was not relevant.
"I think personal opinion really doesn't have a place here," he told the Pentagon Channel television station. "What's important is that we have a law, a statute that governs 'don't ask, don't tell,' that's the policy of this department."
"SLAP IN THE FACE"
The Human Rights Campaign, a leading U.S. gay rights organization, condemned Pace's interview remarks as bigoted.
"General Pace's comments were irresponsible, offensive and a slap in the face to the gay men and women who are currently serving their country with honor and bravery," said Joe Solmonese, the group's president.
More than 10,000 service members have been discharged under the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy since it came into force, according to figures from the Pentagon and Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she was "disappointed in the moral judgment" voiced by Pace and the military should consider changing policy on allowing gays to serve in its ranks.
"We need patriotic Americans who exist across the board in our population," the California Democrat said. "We don't need a moral judgment from the Chairman of Joint Chiefs."
Republican Sen. John Warner, a veteran member of the Senate's Armed Services Committee, said through a spokesman: "I respectfully but strongly disagree with the chairman's view that homosexuality is immoral."
Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said of Pace, "Did he apologize today? I think he ought to apologize. He ought to keep his personal opinions out of his professional duties. I would hope he would do that."
In the interview, Pace compared homosexual acts with adultery and said the military should not tolerate either in its ranks. The military prosecutes service members who sleep with the spouse of another member of the armed forces.
"As an individual, I would not want (acceptance of gay behavior) to be our policy, just like I would not want it to be our policy that if we were to find out that so-and-so was sleeping with somebody else's wife, that we would just look the other way, which we do not," he said.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Susan Cornwell and Vicki Allen)