Defense Secretary William S. Cohen yesterday ordered a review of the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on homosexuals after Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton criticized it and President Clinton followed suit.
Two Republican members of the House Armed Services Committee responded that the administration is trying to appeal to liberal groups to help the first lady’s political campaign.
“This is disgusting,” said Rep. Curt Weldon, Pennsylvania Republican. “I’ve never seen such pandering in my life. The first lady ought to be ashamed of herself. They’re doing this so she can score points for her campaign in New York state.”
His comments echo those of Sen. John McCain, who on Sunday called Mr. Clinton’s criticism of the policy “inappropriate.”
“It seems to me that that kind of statement undermines the men and women in the military who are trying to implement a policy that has been in existence for seven years,” the Republican presidential candidate said.
Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said yesterday the full investigation, to be completed in 90 days, will include spot checks on bases and installations of all the service branches to evaluate how they are carrying out the policy. He said Mr. Cohen shares the president’s concern that the policy is not working.
“Clearly, there are issues that need to be addressed,” Mr. Bacon said.
Echoing comments by his wife last week, Mr. Clinton said on Saturday that he was profoundly saddened by the case of Army Pfc. Barry L. Winchell, 21, who was beaten to death by his barracks roommate, 18-year-old Pvt. Calvin N. Glover, at Fort Campbell, Ky. Pfc. Winchell was perceived by some on the base to be homosexual.
The president said the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is “out of whack” and must be fixed. Mrs. Clinton told a news conference in New York, where she is running for the U.S. Senate, that fitness to serve in the military should not be based on sexual orientation.
Mr. Weldon said Mrs. Clinton ought to be pushing instead for “quality of life” issues in the military such as personnel using food stamps.
Rep. Steve Buyer, Indiana Republican and another member of the committee, said there’s “nothing wrong” with a review but the policy should be returned to the pre-1992 ban on homosexuals in the military.
” Don’t ask, don’t tell’ is out of whack because it’s incongruent with the core values and virtues we teach in the military,” said Mr. Buyer, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves.
When Mr. Clinton proposed lifting the ban on homosexuals in the military in 1993, he ran into unanimous opposition from his Joint Chiefs of Staff. They objected strenuously that homosexuality is incompatible with the unique, 24-hour demands of military life. The Joint Chiefs accepted the compromise after long negotiations.
Mr. Buyer also said he believes the review is aimed at helping both Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy and the community of liberal and homosexual groups who are “panicked” at the prospect of losing a Democratic administration next year.
“It’s probably not so much to help Hillary than it is to help liberal groups,” Mr. Buyer said. “I think that’s what this is about. But it’s no coincidence that Hillary makes her comment, and Bill makes his, and then there’s action. No one’s naive.”
Homosexuals comprise about 8 percent of the population in New York City and 4 percent statewide.
Mr. Bacon suggested the review was prompted by last week’s publicity about the conviction of Glover.
“All of us have read in recent days the very disturbing charges that have come out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky.,” Mr. Bacon told reporters. “Many people have asked whether the charges made about Fort Campbell may apply to other installations in the military.
“The extent to which disparaging speech or expression with respect to sexual orientation occurs or is tolerated by individuals in the chain of command will be assessed,” Mr. Bacon said.
Investigators “will interview soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines at these installations as well as their noncommissioned officers and commanders to get as clear an assessment as possible within 90 days of what the climate is [regarding] the don’t ask, don’t tell,’ ” Mr. Bacon said.
The administration’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was implemented in 1993 as a compromise to Mr. Clinton’s desire to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the military. It reversed a half-century ban on homosexuals in the military and was intended to allow homosexuals to serve quietly.
An admission to being homosexual is grounds for discharge on the assumption that such an admission means the person does, or intends to, engage in prohibited sexual conduct.
Homosexual rights groups say that harassment is growing and that an increasing number of homosexuals are being forced out of the military. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which aids personnel targeted under the ban, said that 1,149 persons were discharged last year for violating the ban, compared with 667 in 1994.
Supporters of the ban say the numbers are higher because homosexuals are no longer screened out at induction and that attrition rates are generally up among enlisted personnel.
Mr. Bacon said the Pentagon would take “any steps that are warranted” by the probe to ensure harassment is not condoned.
The Pentagon issued new guidelines in August that would require military personnel to undergo sensitivity training and assign investigations of homosexual activity to more senior leaders.
“We are as determined as the president is to see that the policy is implemented fairly,” Mr. Bacon said.