WASHINGTON - The Pentagon announced yesterday that it will relax enforcement of the "don't ask, don't tell" rules that prevent gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military, a decision that officials described as a temporary step until Congress can take permanent action.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the military would restrict the kind of evidence that can be used against service members suspected of "homosexual conduct."
For example, investigators will generally ignore anonymous complaints and require accusations made by third parties to be given under oath. High-ranking officers, the equivalent of a one-star general or admiral, will also be required to oversee inquiries and decide whether a discharge is warranted.
Gates said the changes, which are effective immediately, would ensure "a greater measure of common sense and common decency." He said pending investigations would be required to comply with the new policy.
Pentagon officials said they did not know how many current cases might be affected, but noted that last year 428 service members were kicked out of the military because of their sexual orientation.
Gates asked Pentagon lawyers last summer to review whether the Defense Department had the legal discretion to enforce the "don't ask, don't tell" law more loosely. The process stalled until President Barack Obama urged Congress to repeal the law in his Jan. 27 State of the Union address.
Afterward, Gates asked his lawyers to examine the issue further. That review resulted in the changes he announced yesterday.
The Pentagon is moving ahead on the assumption that Congress will overturn the ban on gays serving openly, but when that will happen remains uncertain, and it is still possible that it might not happen at all. Republican opposition to a change is strong, and some influential Democrats - including Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee - agree.
Some gay rights advocacy groups welcomed the Pentagon's announcement but said it was no substitute for congressional action.
"An unjust law still remains on the books, and the harsh reality is service members will still be discharged under it every day until Congress musters the courage to act to bury the law once and for all," said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.