THE Washington debate over allowing homosexuals in the military is becoming a battle of the multiple "don't" compromises.
On one side is the "don't ask, don't tell" plan favored by Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia and some other key lawmakers. Under this approach, military recruits would no longer be asked about their sexual orientation. Yet openly gay personnel could still be dismissed from the service.
On the other side is a plan put forward by Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts that might be characterized as "don't ask, don't tell, don't investigate." Mr. Frank, one of two openly gay members of Congress, proposes that gays be required to remain silent about their status while on duty. Off-base, however, they would be allowed to be openly homosexual without fear of losing their jobs.
Frank has been criticized by homosexual-rights activists for offering something short of what President Clinton promised during the campaign: a flat lifting of the ban on gays in the armed forces. But as Frank has pointed out, sentiment in Congress is running strongly against Mr. Clinton and gay rights at the moment.
Though Frank and Senator Nunn have moved the poles of the debate somewhat closer together, there is still a large gulf between their positions. The "compromise" inherent in their plans thus may be less profound than it seems.
Neither side offers much detail on rules of conduct that could be crucial to policy interpretation. Under "don't ask, don't tell," for instance, what would happen if a slip of the tongue revealed a member of the military as gay? Would they still be dismissed, even if they otherwise concealed their orientation?
At the heart of the proposal by Nunn and others is the belief that if members of the military find out one of their fellows is gay, it will cause unacceptable disruption. Knowledge is thus the key issue.
At the heart of Frank's proposal is the belief that flagrant behavior on duty would be the real problem. The key issue is thus not the knowledge of others, but a gay person's own conduct - a big difference in moral, philosophical, and practical terms.
But "don't ask, don't tell, don't investigate" offers problems perhaps even greater than Nunn's plan. Where does duty end and private life begin?
Some military officials do not feel that Frank's distinction between off-duty and on-duty can be fairly made. Members of the armed forces, they point out, are subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice wherever they are. Many young members of the military live on-base in barracks. "You're a soldier 24 hours a day," says a well-placed military official.
The "don't ask, don't tell" approach is one many people in the Pentagon favor. "We can live with that," says the military source. Yet as this official points out, some aspects of this plan simply return matters to the way they were years ago. It was only about a decade ago, under Carter-era directives, that the military began asking recruits about sexual orientation.
The Clinton administration itself remains pointedly silent on the issue. One reason Frank acted, he says, is the belief that political time was running out and that the conservative side, led by Nunn, was the only one playing.
A Pentagon task force drawing up a policy recommendation on gays in the military for Secretary of Defense Les Aspin has reached the point of laying out a range of preferred options, according to sources.