WASHINGTON -- Pentagon officials said Friday that the Department of Defense is moving to speed the rollback of "don't ask, don't tell," and that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has asked a top official to deliver a plan to "facilitate the timely and orderly realization" of that process by Feb. 4.
That plan will launch a lengthy waiting period before the military's ban on openly gay service members is fully erased, however, and in the meantime, gay service members may still be discharged.
Under the DADT repeal legislation that President Barack Obama signed in late December, openly gay individuals will not be able to serve in the military until 60 days after the president, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the defense secretary have certified that the Pentagon is prepared to implement the repeal in a manner that won't hurt readiness, effectiveness, cohesion or recruiting. Pentagon officials said at a press briefing Friday that they believe repeal implementation can be completed within the year.
"This is not, however, a change that should be done incrementally," Gates wrote in a memo to Clifford Stanley, the defense undersecretary for personnel and readiness. "The steps leading to certification and the actual repeal must be accomplished across the entire Department at the same time, and consistent with the standards of military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention of the Armed Forces."
According to a second memo from Stanley, once repeal is certified, all open DADT investigations will be dismissed, recruits will not be required to reveal their sexual orientation, discharged members will be allowed to reenlist and the standards of conduct will apply to all service members regardless of sexual orientation.
Stanley and Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters on Friday that repeal training is expected to begin in February. They did not provide a specific timeframe, though, saying the heads of each service will have control over their respective finish dates.
Repeal won't require any major policy overhaul, and the officials said the new training will emphasize professionalism and respect for all -- including training about using gay slurs and jokes.
But as was made clear in the briefing, there are still a significant number of issues to be worked out before the repeal is certified, and gay service members will have to be careful until the process is complete.
Last fall, Gates issued a higher standard for discharging service members under DADT, requiring higher-level approval. Since November, no one has been kicked out because of sexual orientation, although there are still cases pending. But in today's briefing, Stanley said that the military did not have any plans to issue a moratorium on discharges while they work toward certification:
Q: If there's no de fact moratorium in place, can you explain what the reason is for why there have been no discharges in the last three months, since the Secretary changed the policy on having the two of you, plus a service chief, overseeing a discharge? What is the reason for the lack of discharges?
STANLEY: I don't want to characterize it as a lack of discharges, but it's been a very deliberate process. The process is deliberate now. There's more scrutiny with the general counsel, my office, the service secretary. As you go through the process in whatever you are going to do. ... You automatically add a level of review that elongates the process. I'm not saying there won't be discharges. [...]
Q: Would you actually discharge somebody right now, in this climate, as you're moving toward repeal and certification? Would you actually do that?
STANLEY: Each individual case is judged on its own merits or demerits. So, quite frankly, the answer is yes, if the case merits it. There are a number of circumstances that could lead to that -- each case. I can't talk about any individual case.
Gay rights groups are also concerned about the lack of clarify on benefits for same-sex partners and legal recourse for service members who face discrimination based on sexual orientation. Stanley said that he did not believe there would be a change in who can receive spousal benefits at this point, since the Defense of Marriage Act -- which defines marriage as between one man and one woman -- is still federal law.
"[T]oday's memo does not go far enough in calling for parity in benefits that could be accomplished through revised regulations that add same-sex committed partners to the definitions of 'dependent,' 'family member,' or other similar terms," according to a statement from the Human Rights Campaign. "Such a step would be consistent with President Obama's June 2009 memorandum that all federal agencies take steps to extend benefits equally to lesbian and gay employees, where permitted by law."
The Stanley memo also says the Military Equal Opportunity program will not be amended to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, although both Stanley and Cartwright stressed that such harassment and discrimination will not be tolerated based on existing military codes of conduct.
In Friday's briefing, reporters pressed on how people who face such discrimination would be able to seek recourse if sexual orientation is not a protected class. Cartwright said that he would have military lawyers look into the issue.
"While there are positive aspects to the Pentagon's announcement today, the Administration's failure to mandate a clear non-discrimination policy either by way of Executive Order or regulation continues to be very troubling," said Richard Socarides, president of Equality Matters. "For implementation to succeed, the President must set a clear non-discrimination rule as President Truman did in 1948 when he desegregated the armed forces. That is the kind of leadership we need today."
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