WASHINGTON — The Department of Defense on Thursday announced stricter guidelines for discharging gay and lesbian service members under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, raising the standards for charging that someone is gay and allowing only generals to approve discharges.
It's the biggest change to the policy since Congress passed it and President Bill Clinton signed it into law in 1993.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced the changes at a briefing Thursday morning.
Someone who charges that a serviceman or woman is gay now must testify under oath. Previously, anyone could make such charges, even against a superior officer. Now, only an officer can launch an investigation, lead one and dismiss a service member.
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While the Pentagon's old guidelines defined homosexual conduct as demonstrating "a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts," the new guidelines define it as marriage, attempted marriage or "engaging in, attempting to engage in or soliciting another to engage in a homosexual act or acts," or a statement by a service member that he or she is gay.
Military officers still aren't supposed to ask service members about their sexual orientation or seek to learn it, and service members are to keep it to themselves.
The changes are expected to protect as many as one in five of the servicemen and servicewomen who are kicked out now because of their sexual orientation. The remaining 80 percent come forward and say that they're gay, according to Pentagon statistics.
The changes go into effect immediately and apply to all open cases, but the department wouldn't say how many cases are open.
Since "don't ask, don't tell" went into effect, roughly 13,000 servicemen and women have left the military because of the rule, reaching a peak of 1,273 in 2001. Last year, 428 service members were expelled under the law.
"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," Gates said.
Gates, however, stressed that he doesn't support repealing the law until the Pentagon finishes a review of how to implement the change, which is scheduled to be completed by Dec. 1.
The announcement signaled a change in tenor from the secretary. Last month, he suggested to Congress that "don't ask, don't tell" was being reviewed at the request of President Barack Obama, who addressed it in his State of the Union address in January, not because Gates was pushing to change his department's policy.
"We have received our orders from the commander in chief, and we are moving out accordingly," Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month. He also hinted, however, that the Pentagon would make changes ahead of the review, saying the department thought it had a "degree of latitude."
At the same hearing, Mullen said that he thought the law should change, calling it the "right thing to do."
Gates said Thursday that the department was making the changes now because of "lessons learned over the past 17 years."
Only Congress can repeal the law. The revisions announced Thursday were the Pentagon's effort to change the administrative guidelines for the law, a stopgap measure while a reluctant Congress debates whether to repeal it.
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