U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is reluctantly accepting a move in Congress to immediately repeal the ban on open homosexuals serving in the U.S. military -- a move that could come this week.
Secretary Gates has endorsed the idea of ending the ban, which President Barack Obama promised to do during the election campaign in 2008 and later said he would accomplish this year.
But Gates had asked the Congress to delay its vote until the completion of a study he has ordered on the impact of the move and the best ways to implement it. He ordered that study in February and wants it completed by December.
Congressional supporters of ending the ban decided to move forward now to take advantage of a procedural and political opportunity. But in a nod to concerns from Gates and the White House, members agreed to allow the Pentagon and the president to determine the timing of moves to enable homosexual men and women to serve openly. That will involve waiting until the review is completed and likely moving cautiously after that.
Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell indicated Secretary Gates accepted the compromise reluctantly.
"Secretary Gates continues to believe that ideally the DOD [Department of Defense] review should be completed before there is any legislation to repeal the 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' law. With Congress having indicated that that is not possible, the Secretary can accept the language in the proposed amendment," he said.
Under the current law, the military does not ask recruits whether they are homosexual and as long as they do not say they are or engage in overt activities that reveal the fact, homosexuals can serve.
That approach, known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," ended the long-standing practice of asking recruits to swear they were not homosexuals. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was adopted 17 years ago, when President Bill Clinton was not able to get military or congressional support for his desire to end the ban completely.
Now, the top U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, has endorsed lifting the ban, as have most other senior officers and many retired military leaders. But there is still concern about the immediate impact of ending the ban, particularly with tens of thousands of U.S. troops serving in war zones and facing the stress of multiple deployments.
Gates and Mullen want to better understand that impact before they decide on the method and timing of changing the rules.
Meanwhile, Gates has changed the procedure for expelling homosexuals from the military to require more specific evidence provided under oath. The move is an effort to make what would appear to be the final months of implementing the ban "more humane."
The Pentagon says that on average since 1997, more than 800 people have been expelled from the U.S. military each year for being homosexual, but the numbers are down in recent years.