Pentagon Makes It Tougher To Expel Gay Personnel

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The Defense Department will change the way it enforces "don't ask, don't tell," the 1993 law barring gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. On Thursday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced new procedures that will make it more difficult to force service members out of the military for being gay.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Today, the Pentagon made it tougher to kick out service members who are gay. Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced changes to the way the military enforces don't ask, don't tell. That's the 1993 law that bars gays and lesbians from being allowed to serve openly.

And as NPR's Tom Bowman reports, the Pentagon's new approach takes effect immediately.

TOM BOWMAN: The president of the United States says he wants Congress to repeal don't ask, don't tell. Congress is considering such a repeal, but in the meantime, Secretary Gates announced he wants the Pentagon to enforce current law more fairly.

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.

BOWMAN: Among the changes, raising the bar for what it takes to begin an investigation. The military will now discourage hearsay and rumors. Accusations should be given under oath. There is more. Statements to doctors, lawyers or chaplains can no longer be used against service members.

The tighter regulations will apply to hundreds of current cases. The Pentagon's top lawyer, Jay Johnson, says some of the current cases might not proceed.

Mr. JAY JOHNSON (Attorney): It is possible that a case that was initiated utilizing the old regs, the initiating authority might have a different view based on the new regs.

BOWMAN: Johnson isn't sure exactly how many cases are under review now, but he says there were 428 dismissals under don't ask, don't tell last year.

Gay rights advocates applauded today's announcement. Here's Aubrey Sarvis with the Soldiers Legal Defense Network.

Mr. AUBREY SARVIS (Soldiers Legal Defense Network): That will be helpful, but it is not a substitute for full repeal.

BOWMAN: He means actually repealing don't ask, don't tell, which is the law of the land. But repeal isn't assured. Those in Congress to overturn it still don't have enough votes. One reason is because the military is divided over the issue. The nation's top military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, wants gays to serve openly, saying it's the right thing to do, but the top Army officer, General George Casey, told Congress last month he worries that scrapping the law could disrupt a military fighting two wars.

General GEORGE CASEY (United States Army): We just don't know the impacts on readiness and military effectiveness.

BOWMAN: Admiral Mullen discounted such talk today.

Admiral MIKE MULLEN (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): Most of what I've heard has actually been very supportive of moving in this direction.

BOWMAN: Mullen also sharply criticized one senior Army general, Lieutenant General Benjamin Mixon. Mixon wrote a letter to a newspaper, saying he didn't believe service members support repealing don't ask, don't tell. He urged soldiers to write elected officials to, quote, stop this ill-advised repeal.

Adm. MULLEN: Somebody in a leadership position like that, understanding what the president's strategic intent is, you know, that letter was not an appropriate letter.

BOWMAN: Pentagon officials already are preparing for the day when don't ask, don't tell is repealed. They're studying how openly gay members would be integrated into the force. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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