The nation's top military officer on Friday defended a "don't ask, don't tell" policy (search) that has led to the discharge of 9,500 gay members of the armed forces since 1993.

"We try to implement the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy as best we can," Air Force Gen. Richard Myers (search), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a conference of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He also mentioned "continuing education" in regards to the policy but did not explain what that meant.

The policy permits gay men and women to serve only if they keep their sexual orientation (search) to themselves. Critics say the policy discriminates against people who want to serve their country.

Other Pentagon officials, including Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey, have also said they see no need to change the policy, despite declining recruitment figures.

A February report by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said 9,488 members of the services had been discharged under the policy through 2003.

That included 757 people with what the military defined as critical skills, such as linguists, the GAO found. Various commissions looking into the Sept. 11 attacks have emphasized the need for more foreign language profiency in the military and intelligence services.