WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon issued new rules on Thursday making it harder for the U.S. military to discharge gay personnel, an interim step to ease enforcement of the existing “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy while Congress considers repealing it.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the directives were the result of a 45-day review of what the Pentagon can do in the short term within the confines of existing law to allow implementation in a “fair and more appropriate manner.”
He said the goal was to bring “a greater measure of common sense and common decency” to the process while the Pentagon conducts a broader review slated for completion by December 1.
Proponents of repeal hailed what they called the first cracks in “don’t ask, don’t tell” since the policy became law in 1993. Opponents said the new rules would invite open defiance of the law and undercut troop morale.
President Barack Obama called for the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in his State of the Union speech in January, putting a spotlight on the hot-button issue before congressional elections in November.
Many gay activists were frustrated last year that Obama, whom they strongly backed in the 2008 campaign, had not moved quickly to carry out a promise to overturn the policy, which bars homosexuals from serving openly in the military.
The directives from 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.
To limit expulsions of soldiers “outed” by third parties, the directives require their information be given under oath. The use of “overheard statements and hearsay” in “don’t ask, don’t tell” cases will also be discouraged.
Gates said the changes would take effect immediately and apply to all open and future cases.
Key lawmakers who favor repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” said the directives were a step in the right direction but were no substitute for repealing the policy.
“It is unconscionable to continue to discharge servicemembers under this law,” said Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, a Democrat. “At a minimum, we should suspend discharges based solely on sexual orientation while the study is completed this year.”
Gates defended the pace of change at the Pentagon and warned against “risky” efforts advocated by some lawmakers to implement a moratorium or an outright repeal of the policy before the Pentagon completes its full review.
While the top U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, has supported a repeal, several prominent officers and lawmakers have questioned lifting the ban at a time when the U.S. military is stretched by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Underscoring the divisions, Lieutenant General Benjamin Mixon, a senior Army commander, drew a stinging rebuke from Gates and Mullen for urging service members to write to their lawmakers to try to stop this “ill-advised” repeal.
Those who oppose allowing gays to serve openly in the military argue it would harm morale, undermine unit cohesion and hurt good order and discipline in the ranks.
Advocates of a repeal say those fears are unfounded and that the existing policy is counterproductive and unfair.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions in terms of the implementation of this,” Gates told a news conference. “Doing it hastily is very risky and I think does not address some of the concerns that have been expressed.”
Nathaniel Frank of the Palm Center, a research institute of the University of California, Santa Barbara, said the changes “show a good faith effort by the Pentagon to relax the ban.”
But he said “the ultimate impact will depend on how and whether it is enforced. History gives us cause to worry.”
The Family Research Council, a conservative Christian group, said Gates was setting “a very dangerous precedent” by taking steps that are “destructive of unit cohesion, personal morale and, ultimately, the security of our nation.”
Additional reporting by Deborah Charles; Editing by Paul Simao