WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The secretary of the U.S. Army publicly corrected himself on Thursday about his assertion that there was a moratorium on discharging gays from the military, saying he had been mistaken.
John McHugh, the Army's top civilian, added he was unable to pursue disciplinary action against the three soldiers who he revealed on Wednesday had admitted to him that they were gay, in an apparent violation of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
"I am unable to identify these soldiers and I am not in a position to formally pursue the matter," McHugh, a former Republican congressman, said in a statement.
The rare, and very public, correction highlights confusion within the armed forces as the U.S. military seeks to survey troops about their feelings on potentially ending the 17-year-old "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
The law allows gays to serve in the military only if they keep their sexual identity secret.
The Pentagon hopes to prepare a study by December on the impact of integrating openly serving homosexuals into the force if Congress repeals the law -- one of President Barack Obama's policy priorities.
One option the Pentagon is considering is hiring a private, third-party firm to survey troops, a move that might allow officials to draw input from homosexual personnel without exposing them to the risk of discharge.
McHugh said on Wednesday that he felt pursuing disciplinary action against gay soldiers who had spoken to him "openly and honestly" seemed counter-productive, since he had been tasked to get the pulse of troops about potentially ending the ban.
But on Thursday, McHugh said he should have behaved differently given that "don't ask, don't tell" is still in force.
"I might better have counseled them that statements about their sexual orientation could not be treated as confidential and could result in their separation (from the Army) under the law," said McHugh, who was appointed by Obama.
Obama called for a repeal in his State of the Union speech in January, putting a spotlight on the hot-button issue before congressional elections in November.
The top U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, has supported repeal, but military officials and lawmakers have voiced concerns about lifting the ban at a time when the U.S. military is stretched by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Nathaniel Frank of the Palm Center, a research institute of the University of California, Santa Barbara, said top brass have long turned a blind eye to "don't ask, don't tell."
"We've known for years that military leaders are ignoring this law, especially during wartime," said Frank, a proponent of repeal.
The Pentagon last week issued new rules making it harder for the armed forces to discharge gay personnel but admissions of homosexuality are still grounds for discharge.
The directives announced by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates raised the rank of those allowed to launch investigations against suspected violators of "don't ask, don't tell."
They also raised the level for what constitutes "credible" information to start an inquiry and curbed the use of testimony from doctors, lawyers and clergy.
Editing by Mohammad Zargham