Defense Secretary Robert Gates is promising to try to spare more gay troops from being dismissed from the military while the Pentagon takes a year to study revising its "don't ask, don't tell" policy. An announcement of the study, expected today before the Senate Armed Services Committee, marks a measured step toward President Barack Obama's goal of eliminating the military's policy against gays, which is based on a 1993 law.
Obama has called on Congress to repeal the law, but Democrats say they want more guidance on how to allow openly gay service members to serve without causing a major upheaval. The yearlong study could pave the way for the biggest social change to the military since the 1948 executive order for the racial integration of units.
While his promise is being hailed as a good start by gay rights' activists, Obama is finding resistance in several corners. Some high-ranking military officers are reluctant to embrace the change while troops are stretched thin at a time of two wars.
For their part, Democrats in Congress are unlikely to press the divisive issue until after this fall's midterm elections.
This will probably satisfy Gates, who has long suggested that change shouldn't come too quickly. In a speech last year at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., he noted that the executive order for racial integration took five years to implement.
"I'm not saying that's a model for this, but I'm saying that I believe this is something that needs to be done very, very carefully," he said.
According to U.S. officials, the senior-level study will be co-chaired by a top-ranked civilian and a senior uniformed officer. It would recommend the best way to lift the ban, starting from the premise that the goal will take time to accomplish but that it can be done without harming the capabilities or cohesion of the military force, officials said.
One U.S. official said Gates and Mullen will outline a more lenient standard for enforcing the current ban, as Gates had said last year he would consider. The interim policy would make it harder for a third party to turn in a gay service member and would raise the standard for evidence that the service member is gay before the person could be dismissed.
Under the 1993 law, engaging in homosexual conduct — even you don't tell anyone — can been enough to qualify a person for dismissal. The law was intended as a compromise between then-President Bill Clinton, who wanted to lift the military's ban on gays entirely, and a reluctant Congress and military that said doing so would threaten order.
According to figures released Monday, the Defense Department last year dismissed the fewest number of service members for violating its the policy than it had in more than a decade. Overall, more than 10,900 troops have been fired under the policy. The 2009 figure — 428 — was dramatically lower than the 2008 total of 619.