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U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (left) announced the changes to "don't ask, don't tell" Thursday during a Pentagon news conference with Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (left) announced the changes to "don't ask, don't tell" Thursday during a Pentagon news conference with Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Alex Wong/Getty Images
The Pentagon has made it more difficult for the military to dismiss gay service members, announcing a raft of changes for investigations and expulsions Thursday as Congress continues to debate the future of the "don't ask, don't tell" law.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he has raised the bar for what constitutes "credible" information to begin investigations that could result in a service member's discharge. He also took steps to curb expulsions on the basis of hearsay in third-party outings, mandating that such statements be made under oath.
"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," he said at a news conference.
The new procedures go into effect immediately, though the service branches will have 30 days to blend the changes into their regulations. Gates said the rules have the support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and are in compliance with the current policy.
Lawmakers are trying to decide whether they want to repeal the 17-year-old law that limits the military's ability to ask service members about their sexual orientation. "Don't ask" allows gay men and women to serve in the military if they don't discuss their sexual preferences or act on them.
President Obama has said the law should be repealed.
Gates also announced other changes, including:
— raising the rank of officers authorized to conduct fact-finding inquiries.
— raising the rank of officers authorized to begin investigations and conduct discharge proceedings.
— excluding the use of confidential information in discharges, including statements made to lawyers, clergy members, mental health professionals and others.
Nathaniel Frank, senior research fellow at the Palm Center think tank at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said narrowing the rules so that only a one-star general or flag officer can initiate an investigation may lead to a drop in the number of gay and lesbian service members discharged.
Frank said the changes may also have a positive impact on service members who are currently fighting discharge. "If they re-initiate a case, this is a signal from the military that gays can serve openly in the military without disrupting," he said.
Denny Meyer, spokesperson for American Veterans for Equal Rights, said the changes announced by Gates call into question the reason for excluding gays and lesbians from the military in the first place.
"The whole reason for [excluding gays] is that it's bad for unit cohesion and it's immoral. If those reasons were valid, there would be no reason to make it easier for them to stay in," Meyer said.
In February, Gates convened a high-level task force to initiate a review of don't ask, don't tell and make recommendations in the event the law is changed. At the same time, he directed the Defense Department to review the way the military implements the current law and make recommendations that would make enforcement fairer.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and other Democrats have said it's time to repeal the ban and have called for a moratorium on dismissals.
Frank said Congress is expected to take up the issue of repealing don't ask, don't tell when they receive a report due Dec. 1 from a working group studying the issue.
Gates said he would not be in favor of changing the law before the study is complete. "There is a great deal we don't know about this in terms of the views of our service members, in terms of the views of their families and influencers," he said.
Adm. Mike Mullen, who was also present at the briefing, echoed Gates' sentiments.
"I think it's very important for us to go through this process. And doing it with haste could easily generate a very bad outcome," Mullen said. "So, understanding where we are, having that information from those it will affect most, is a very important part of this process."