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SLDN’s Sarvis in Washington Post: Pentagon Relaxes “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

Pentagon relaxes 'don't ask, don't tell'
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 25, 2010; 12:40 PM

The Pentagon announced Thursday that it will relax enforcement of the "don't ask, don't tell" rules that prevent gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military, a decision that officials described as a temporary step until Congress can take permanent action.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the military would restrict the kind of evidence that can be used against service members suspected of "homosexual conduct." For example, investigators will generally ignore anonymous complaints and require accusations made by third parties to be given under oath. High-ranking officers -- the equivalent of a one-star general or admiral -- will also be required to oversee inquiries and decide whether a discharge is warranted.

Gates said the changes, which are effective immediately, would ensure "a greater measure of common sense and common decency."

He said pending investigations would be required to comply with the new policy. Pentagon officials said they did not know how many current cases might be affected but noted that last year 428 service members were kicked out of the military because of their sexual orientation.

Gates asked Pentagon lawyers last summer to review whether the Defense Department had the legal discretion to enforce the "don't ask, don't tell" law more loosely. The process stalled until President Obama urged Congress to repeal the law in his Jan. 27 State of the Union address.

Afterward, Gates asked his lawyers to examine the issue further. That review resulted in the changes he announced Thursday.

The Pentagon is moving ahead on the assumption that Congress will overturn the ban on gays serving openly, but when that will happen remains uncertain, and it still possible that it might not happen at all. Republican opposition to a change is strong, and some influential Democrats -- including Rep. Ike Skelton (Mo.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee -- agree.

Some gay rights advocacy groups welcomed the Pentagon's announcement but said it was no substitute for congressional action.

"An unjust law still remains on the books, and the harsh reality is service members will still be discharged under it every day until Congress musters the courage to act to bury the law once and for all," said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.

The law was passed by Congress in 1993 after military leaders resisted attempts by President Bill Clinton to integrate gays and lesbians into the armed forces. Under the compromise legislation, gays are allowed to serve as long as they hide their sexual orientation.

Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate committee on Feb. 2 that they agreed with Obama and would take steps to prepare the military for the eventual repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" law.

Gates has assigned Gen. Carter F. Ham, the commander of the U.S. Army Europe, and the Pentagon's chief legal counsel, Jeh C. Johnson, to issue recommendations by Dec. 1 on how to integrate openly gay service members into the armed forces. Among the issues they will have to sort out: same-sex marriage, barracks co-habitation and attendance at military social functions.

On Thursday, Gates emphasized that the pending review was not intended to determine whether gays and lesbians should be integrated, but how.

At the same time, he urged Congress not to act too quickly by immediately repealing "don't ask, don't tell," or by approving a moratorium on discharges -- something that some advocacy groups have called for. "Doing it hastily is very risky," he said.

The issue remains a political hot potato among the military brass in the Pentagon. Some generals and admirals have argued that it is unwise to make sweeping social changes in the armed forces at a time when the United States is fighting two wars.

But few have been willing to openly contradict Mullen, the nation's highest-ranking military officer, who told the Senate in February that repealing the law was "the right thing to do."

One of those who has openly expressed opposition is Lt. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, the head of Army forces in the U.S. Pacific Command. Mixon has publicly stated that a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" would be "ill-advised." He also has urged service members who agreed with him to speak out, both to elected officials and their chain of command.

That last part apparently crossed the line with Mullen, who said Thursday that "the issue is being addressed with him."

"As a three-star leader in command, by virtue of just that position alone, he has great influence," Mullen said. He said that if officers feel so strongly that they cannot abide by policy changes, "The answer is not advocacy. It is in fact to vote with your feet."

Asked if he thought Mixon should resign, Mullen told reporters, "That's a decision that would certainly be up to him."

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