Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates yesterday outlined the Pentagon's plans on gays in the military, telling Congress he will scale back enforcement of the law that bans open homosexuality in the ranks and has launched a yearlong review of how to handle the ban's repeal, which the Obama administration will seek.
The announcement prompted advocates for lifting the ban to complain that the review is unnecessary and too long.
Mr. Gates said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that military policy will be reviewed and that gay troops will be treated "in a fairer manner," suggesting that the military will no longer discharge service members accused of homosexuality by former partners or other third parties.
"The question before us is not whether the military prepares to make this change, but how we best prepare for it," Mr. Gates said. "We received our orders from the commander in chief, and we are moving out accordingly."
President Obama had promised to end the 1993 policy of "don't ask, don't tell" during the first year of his presidency and announced during last week's State of the Union speech that the law should be repealed.
A yearlong delay is likely to complicate efforts to change the law, as Republicans and some centrist Democrats are wary of political backlash. Many gay groups that supported Mr. Obama during the presidential campaign have expressed disappointment at delays in efforts to lift the ban.
Current and former military officers who oppose lifting the ban, including retired Gen. Carl E. Mundy, former Marine Corps commandant, have said that such social engineering should not be carried out while U.S. military forces are stressed from fighting wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.
Proponents of lifting the ban say the issue is one of fairness.
The issue is expected to trigger a major political debate, similar to the battle in the early 1990s that ended up codifying the ban in law, but changed the policy so that gays were not asked about their sexual orientation before joining the military.
According to defense officials, Gen. James T. Conway, Marine commandant and Joint Chiefs member, is leading efforts within the Pentagon to oppose the repeal.
An outspoken opponent of lifting the ban, Elaine Donnelly of the Livonia, Mich.-based Center for Military Readiness, said the plan presented by Mr. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to limit enforcement of the ban is unworkable and will undermine the law.
"Such a plan would create an incentive for 'third parties' to guarantee retention of gay partners in the military, simply by identifying their partner as gay," she said in a statement.
"Homosexuals would become a protected class under standards different from everyone else," she said. "This would constitute a clear violation of the 1993 law stating that homosexuals are not eligible for military service, and establish a double standard that, in the name of 'consistency,' weakens discipline across the board."
Kevin Nix, a spokesman for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a gay rights group, told The Washington Times that although his organization is "pleased and feeling positive" about the Pentagon plan, he is concerned that a one-year study is "too long and not necessary."
"We're all in agreement that 'don't ask, don't tell' is at odds with the core value of our military," Mr. Nix said. "In terms of the one-year study, it's a little too long. There are already plenty of studies. Other countries have done it in three to four months."
A 1990s study by the Rand Corp. found that allowing gays to serve openly had no harmful effects in other nations, Mr. Nix said. Canada, Britain, France and Israel allow gays to serve openly in their militaries, and Rand said it found no impact, he said.
Mr. Gates said he has asked Pentagon officials to make recommendations within 45 days, noting that "we have a degree of latitude within the existing law to change our internal procedures in a manner that is more appropriate and fair to our men and women in uniform."
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he was "deeply disappointed" with the move to repeal the law.
Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader in the House, said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" that "in the middle of two wars and in the middle of this giant security threat, why would we want to get into this debate?"
Despite the fact that many oppose the changes, Adm. Mullen said he has served with gay service members since 1968 and that "allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do."
"However, while the Pentagon is studying the issue, Congress can act at the same time on a legislative repeal this year," Adm. Mullen said. "Both can happen simultaneously."
Mrs. Donnelly said the testimony delivered by Mr. Gates and Adm. Mullen is "an irresponsible plan that would incrementally eviscerate the law by unilaterally suspending its enforcement for specious reasons."
A defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the military ranks are not happy that they might be asked to change policy at this time.
"It was a difficult year and even more difficult to balance out a number of issues, including the wars and gay rights," the defense official said. "This will be a historical change, and not everyone is happy with it."
Adm. Mullen said that although he thought "the great young men and women of our military can and would accommodate such a change," he wasn't certain.
"Nor do I know for a fact how we would best make such a major policy change in a time of two wars," he added.