Clinton reportedly balks at curbing gays' speech Ways sought to soften 'don't tell' rule

July 16, 1993|By Richard H. P. Sia and Lyle Denniston | Richard H. P. Sia and Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau Carl Cannon and Jeff Leeds contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton reportedly refused last night to endorse the Pentagon's proposal to impose a sweeping ban on what gays in the military could say about their homosexuality, and asked his aides to prepare something less restrictive.

As a result, the president appeared unlikely to be ready to announce later today, as he had planned, a new policy that -- with some conditions -- would permit lesbians and gay men to remain in the military.

Mr. Clinton and Defense Secretary Les Aspin discussed the issue at length at the White House last night, a top administration aide said, as they searched for an alternative to ZTC the proposal Mr. Aspin had brought from the Pentagon just after 8 p.m.

Individuals familiar with the discussions said that the Pentagon had suggested that the President adopt a strict "don't ask, don't tell" policy, under which gays would be allowed to continue in the service, but in return for that, would be barred totally from discussing their gay lives publicly or privately.

One top official said last night that the White House had made two major decisions:

* Current language declaring that "homosexuality is incompatible with military service" would be dropped. Instead, "homosexual conduct" would be judged as incompatible.

* No blanket exemption would be given for off-duty, off-base conduct.

Mr. Aspin and Mr. Clinton were still discussing last night exceptions to the "don't tell" rule, the official said. They were considering, for example, whether gays could discuss their homosexuality with chaplains, doctors and lawyers without risking expulsion from the military, the official said.

The restrictive Pentagon proposal ran into resistance in recent days from U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno because of her doubts that it could be defended successfully in court, The Sun reported yesterday.

At least partly in response to Ms. Reno's objections, Mr. Clinton was reported to have said that he could not accept the Pentagon's formal proposal. One individual familiar with the discussions said the president told Mr. Aspin that he wanted "something less than an all-out ban on gay speech."

It was not known whether the president and Mr. Aspin completed the outlines of a less restrictive approach last night. Individuals close to the discussions said the president probably would not be making any announcement until Monday. The New York Times reported last night that the president intended to have Ms. Reno review a new, less-restrictive approach that Mr. Clinton is said to have wanted.

White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers predicted before the proposal arrived that it was "probably unlikely" that the president would seek a blanket lifting of the 50-year-old ban, as he had promised in last year's campaign.

Pentagon officials, meantime, disclosed that the administration had decided to implement any new policy Oct. 1, after the retirement of Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose term is to expire the day before. But they insisted that the timing had nothing to do with the departure of the four-star general, who, along with the other chiefs, contends that a full repeal of the ban would harm discipline and combat readiness.

One senior official explained the October effective date by saying it would give the military brass enough time to brief all unit commanders, who are likely to have considerable discretion in enforcing the policy.

Another official suggested that the administration wanted to give members of Congress enough time to review the new policy, let off steam or even try to overturn it.

Amid the last-minute maneuvering between the Pentagon and the White House, more than 100 gay activists, including some veterans, rallied in a last-ditch plea to Mr. Clinton to end discrimination in the military.

They gathered by the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial bearing rainbow flags and emotionally charged rhetoric condemning the Pentagon compromise. But some conceded that the likelihood that Mr. Clinton would satisfy their demands was now "a high-risk bet."

"This is our final appeal to a president who made a promise," said Tanya L. Domi, a lesbian and former Army captain. "We are asking him to keep that promise."

Mr. Aspin has conveyed the unanimous view of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that "conduct" should be defined as homosexual acts, marriages and both public and private statements.

Navy Capt. Michael Doubleday, a Pentagon spokesman, said Mr. Aspin spent most of yesterday working on a single policy recommendation for Mr. Clinton.

Mr. Clinton has been warned repeatedly by Mr. Aspin and others not to alienate the military leadership and key members of Congress, such as Georgia Democrat Sam Nunn, the influential chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, by redeeming his unqualified campaign pledge to end the ban on gays.

When the issue exploded after he appeared to snub the chiefs in his first week in office, Mr. Clinton ordered a Pentagon study and gave Mr. Aspin until yesterday to draft an executive order "to end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation" in the military.

In another last-minute effort to seek repeal of the homosexual ban, Rep. Patricia Schroeder urged Mr. Clinton to heed Ms. Reno. The Sun reported yesterday that Ms. Reno had expressed doubts about the Justice Department's ability to defend a "don't ask, don't tell" policy in court.

"The secretary of defense and the Joint Chiefs have spent six months and over a million taxpayer dollars to create a compromise that's unconstitutional," the Colorado Democrat said.

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