The Pentagon announced Thursday 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 described as a temporary step until Congress can take permanent action.
Defense Secretary Robert M. 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 that accusations by third parties be given under oath. High-ranking officers will also be required to oversee inquiries and decide whether a discharge is warranted.
Gates said the changes, which are effective immediately, will ensure "a greater measure of common sense and common decency."
He said pending investigations will 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 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 Thursday. 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. It is 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.
The law was passed by Congress in 1993 after military leaders resisted attempts by President Bill Clinton to integrate gays and lesbians into the armed forces.
Gates has assigned a panel to issue recommendations by Dec. 1 on how to integrate openly gay service members into the armed forces. Among the issues they will have to sort out: same-sex marriage, barracks cohabitation and attendance at military social functions.
On Thursday, Gates emphasized that the pending review was not intended to determine whether gays and lesbians should be integrated but how.
At the same time, he urged Congress not to act too quickly by immediately repealing "don't ask, don't tell," or by approving a moratorium on discharges -- something that some advocacy groups have called for. "Doing it hastily is very risky," he said.
The issue remains a political hot potato among Pentagon brass. Some generals and admirals have argued that it is unwise to make sweeping social changes in the armed forces while fighting two wars.