Pentagon eases 'don't ask, don't tell' law

The Pentagon announced changes Thursday to how the 'don't ask, don't tell' law approaches the investigation of homosexual conduct.

Hyungwon Kang/REUTERS
Thursday.Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledges a question from a reporter at the Pentagon Thursday as he discusses the Pentagon's easing of its "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which prohibits gays and lesbians from serving openly in the US military. He is joined by of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday relaxed the "don’t ask, don’t tell" law, raising the bar on how homosexual conduct can be investigated within the military.

“I believe these changes represent an important improvement in the way the current law is put into practice, above all by providing a greater measure of common sense and common decency to a process for handling what are difficult and complex issues for all involved,” Secretary Gates said in announcing the changes at the Pentagon.

The changes, in effect immediately, raise the level of rank required to initiate a fact-finding inquiry against a service member. Also, the officer who conducts the investigation must now be a lieutenant colonel, commander, or above. Under the old regulations, any commanding officer could initiate an investigation or conduct one.

The changes also raise the bar on what constitutes the “credible information” that has been used to separate an individual for homosexual conduct. And the changes require more scrutiny of the credibility of individuals whose information would be used to open an investigation against an individual service member. That requirement is aimed at better preventing third-party individuals with a vendetta from essentially tattling on another service member to get them drummed out of the military.

In addition, the Pentagon changed the sources of information admissible during an investigation. From now on, information provided to lawyers, clergy, psychotherapists, and other medical professionals is no longer accepted.

Gay-rights advocates cheered the move.

“We are especially pleased that the undue burden gay and lesbian troops carry around with them every day has been lessened,” said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. “At least a gay service member can divulge his or her sexuality to a physician or therapist without fear of getting fired.” The group had proposed many of the changes to the Pentagon.

The modifications come as the Pentagon also begins a review, due to be complete by December, about how the military would repeal the don’t ask, don’t tell law. That controversial law, first in effect in 1993, forbids gays and lesbians from serving openly. Last year, the Pentagon discharged 428 individuals under the law.

Taken together, the changes that Gates announced Thursday are a step toward making the existing law less “draconian,” as gay-rights advocates have argued. Gates, in consultation with the Pentagon’s lawyer, has maintained that there is flexibility within the existing law to make it less harsh.

But it is Congress that would repeal the law, and it is unclear if there is support for repeal. Even some top Democrats are worried that now is not the right time.

One senior officer who is against repeal may have fallen on his sword. Lt. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, a three-star Army general and former commander in Iraq, commented in the Stars and Stripes newspaper recently that repealing the law was a bad idea. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the comments “inappropriate.”

Mixon wrote to the paper March 8: “I suspect many servicemembers, their families, veterans and citizens are wondering what to do to stop this ill-advised repeal of a policy that has achieved a balance between a citizen’s desire to serve and acceptable conduct.” He urged readers to “write your elected officials” to express views.

Now, Mixon’s career is probably over.

“Somebody in a leadership position like that, understanding where the president’s strategic intent is ... clearly, that letter was not an appropriate letter,” Mullen said Thursday.

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