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Pentagon eases enforcement of ban on gays

New rules change protocol for firing, testimony in trials

By Anne Flaherty
Associated Press / March 26, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The Pentagon made it harder to boot gays out of the military yesterday, acting on its own while Congress considers President Obama’s goal of lifting the ban on gays serving openly.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates approved new rules to ease enforcement of the 1993 congressional ban, saying the changes reflect “common sense and common decency.’’

The guidelines, meant to keep the “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ law from being used to launch witch hunts or settle grudges, represent the first significant step by the administration to address what Obama calls an injustice.

Among the new guidelines is a requirement that the firing of gay enlisted personnel be done by an officer at a rank at least equivalent to a one-star general.

The guidelines also say that information supplied by third parties should be given under oath and that testimony from a person who might be seeking revenge should not be allowed. No longer admissible in dismissal cases is information given in confidence to lawyers, clergy, psychotherapists, or medical professionals. Those rules, and Gates’s support, were reported in The Boston Globe on Feb. 2.

An estimated 13,000 people have been discharged under the law. Although most of the dismissals have been the result of gay personnel outing themselves, advocates for repeal of the law say it has been used to drum out capable soldiers who never made their sexuality an issue.

Gates said the changes, effective immediately, are “an important improvement in the way the law is put into practice,’’ short of repealing it. The changes give “a greater measure of common sense and common decency for handling what are complex and difficult issues for all involved,’’ he said at the Pentagon.

Gay-rights groups have long advocated for these changes, contending that the rules unfairly kept gay troops from seeking medical help or reporting domestic abuse for fear of being exposed and expelled.

Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, support a repeal of the law but want to move slowly to ensure the changes won’t hurt the military’s effectiveness.

As for an outright repeal of the ban, it is unclear whether there is enough support in Congress. Conservative Democrats have joined Republicans in warning against lifting the ban at a time of two wars, and even the go-slow effort has strong critics in and outside the military.

In a defiant letter in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, a three-star Army general recently called efforts to repeal the ban ill advised and urged troops and their families to speak up. “Now is the time to write your elected officials and chain of command and express your views,’’ Lieutenant General Benjamin Mixon, who commands Army troops in the Pacific theater, wrote this month.

In a rare public admonishment of another senior-ranking officer, Mullen said yesterday that it was inappropriate for an officer, particularly of Mixon’s rank and stature, to challenge publicly Obama’s priorities.

“The answer is not advocacy. It is, in fact, to vote with your feet,’’ Mullen said.