WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday he wants to make the law prohibiting gays from serving openly in the armed forces "more humane" until Congress eventually repeals it. He said he has lawyers studying ways the law might be selectively enforced.
"One of the things we're looking at is, is there flexibility in how we apply this law?" Gates said.
The defense chief, a holdover from the Republican administration of former President George W. Bush, told reporters traveling with him in Europe that the Clinton-era ban was written without much wiggle room. The Pentagon general counsel is looking at potential avenues around full enforcement as a stopgap, Gates said.
For example, Gates said, the military might not have to expel someone whose sexual orientation was revealed by a third party out of vindictiveness or suspect motives. That would include, Gates said, someone who was "jilted" by the gay service member.
"That's the kind of thing we're looking at to see if there's at least a more humane way to apply the law until the law gets changed," Gates said, according to a transcript released by the Pentagon.
Gay rights activists and others have criticized the Obama administration for not quickly following through on a pledge to lift the ban on openly gay military service.
President Barack Obama and his spokesmen say he remains committed to repealing the Clinton-era law known as "don't ask, don't tell," but neither the White House nor congressional leadership has moved swiftly to do so.
Under "don't ask, don't tell" rules, gays and lesbians can serve in the military if they do not disclose their sexuality or engage in homosexual behavior.
There is no timetable for the pending bill to repeal the 1993 law, which was intended as a compromise to get around a full ban on gay military service. Gay rights leaders, however, have said it is an insult.
Obama says he wants to build support for the change among military commanders before urging Congress to move ahead.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff and others have cautioned that repeal of the law must be done carefully so as not to disrupt military cohesion in wartime or to place an additional burden on an already overstretched uniformed force.
Gates said he discussed repeal of the no-gays policy with Obama last week, but he did not detail the conversation.
"We were talking about how do we move forward on this to achieve his objective, which is changing the policy, and the issue that we face is that how do we begin to do preparations and simultaneously the administration move forward in terms of asking the Congress to change the law," Gates said.
Several liberal legal experts and outside groups have urged Obama to issue an executive order that would make the law unenforceable, but Gates appeared to be considering measures short of that.