Pentagon Announces 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Changes

The Pentagon announced changes that will make it more difficult for the military to kick out gay service members. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he is raising the bar for what constitutes "credible" information to start an inquiry.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Starting today, it will be harder to force someone out of the military for being gay. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced changes in the way the Pentagon will enforce don't ask, don't tell. That's the 1993 law barring homosexuals from serving openly in the military. Among the changes: discouraging the use of hearsay to out a service member.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): 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.

WERTHEIMER: That's the secretary of defense, Robert Gates, speaking earlier today. And joining us now is NPR's Tom Bowman at the Pentagon.

Tom, what are some of the other changes?

TOM BOWMAN: Well, Linda, a couple of the changes include a more senior officer, now, would be required to start a fact-finding inquiry under don't ask, don't tell, or begin separation proceedings - basically, kicking out a service member. And that's to give it more consistency. It also raises the threshold of what is credible information. Information from a third party, for example, would now have to be given under oath. Actually, they're suggesting it should be given under oath.

Another big thing is that certain confidential information given to a lawyer, a clergy, or, let's say, a psychotherapist about sexual orientation, or for a security clearance, that could no longer be used against someone to kick someone out.

WERTHEIMER: Why are these changes being made now?

BOWMAN: Well, quite simply, Gates' boss, President Obama, would like to see don't ask, don't tell overturned. And Gates told Congress last month that he wants to see the current law more appropriate and fair. So that's why we're seeing these changes now.

WERTHEIMER: If it does go into effect immediately, what happens to current cases?

BOWMAN: Well, after the briefing, I asked the general counsel of the Pentagon, Jay Johnson, about that. And he said it's possible that current cases would be reviewed, and that those that started under old regulations might not proceed. It's possible they could be thrown out.

WERTHEIMER: So how many cases are we talking about?

BOWMAN: The general counsel didn't have a number of the current cases, but he did say that last year, 428 people, service members were kicked out under don't ask, don't tell. So that gives you a rough idea of the number of cases they're looking at.

WERTHEIMER: Tom, what about the law itself, don't ask, don't tell? What happened today is not a repeal of the law. What's likely to happen with that?

BOWMAN: Well, that's right. Don't ask, don't tell is still the law of the land. There have been bills introducing Congress to repeal the law. On the House side, there's been a bill in for a while. It has 190 cosponsors, but a couple of dozen short of the number needed for passage. The Senate side, there's also a bill, but it has just 25 Senators supporting it. This is clearly a divisive issue, and some military leaders still oppose it. Some members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff say it could be disruptive to the military. So the question of repealing this law is still very much an open question.

WERTHEIMER: But I assume the Pentagon is already looking at what it would do if the law is changed.

BOWMAN: Right. They started a study, a year-long study to look at how they would implement a change if don't ask, don't tell is repealed. They're doing everything from polling service members to get their views about it. And they're also looking into practical questions, such as would a gay service member be able to get spousal benefits. So - but that's going to take some time, and they're not expected to wrap up that study until the end of the year.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Tom Bowman, NPR's Pentagon correspondent.

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