Clinton is poised to keep basic restrictions on gays His aides reveal little policy change

July 17, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon and Richard H. P. Sia | Carl M. Cannon and Richard H. P. Sia,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton is poised to accept a restrictive Pentagon plan that demands gays and lesbians in the armed services keep their sexual orientation secret, remain celibate and not so much as hold hands or dance even while off base and out of uniform, senior administration officials said yesterday.

Although Mr. Clinton promised during the campaign to lift the military's 50-year-old ban on homosexuals, Pentagon officials acknowledge that the plan he is on the verge of adopting preserves the three main features of the current policy:

* Military codes outlawing gay and lesbian sex acts that will remain on the books.

* The premise that open homosexuality is incompatible with military service.

* The criteria for discharging gays and lesbians from the service to remain unchanged.

"If you are a practicing homosexual and you tell someone, you are out," said one senior administration official.

In their one major concession to gays, White House officials promised yesterday to sharply curtail investigations against suspected homosexual service men unless commanding officers are presented with strong evidence of repeated homosexual conduct. The new policy would create "a zone of privacy" for homosexuals willing to remain closeted to serve in the military.

"It's not just, 'Don't ask, don't tell,' " explained another senior official. "It's, 'Don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue.' "

Mr. Clinton's aides characterized this as an important step toward further relaxation of the ban.

"We think this is an advance over where the policy is now," one official said.

David R. Gergen and George Stephanopoulos, the top White House aides dealing with the Pentagon on this issue, briefed reporters yesterday about the policy, dubbed: "Don't ask, don't tell."

Although both men declined to be quoted directly by name, each characterized the president as "generally supportive" of the Pentagon's plan, saying it awaited only final approval by Justice Department lawyers who have expressed reservations this week about the plan's constitutionality.

But the Pentagon insisted yesterday that Attorney General Janet Reno does not harbor any reservations about the constitutionality of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

During a briefing, a high-level defense official accused The Sun of publishing an "incorrect" story about Ms. Reno's efforts to steer the government away from such a policy because she was worried it could not be defended in court.

The defense official said yesterday that she consulted with Justice Department attorneys on the policy, and they are in agreement that it can be defended in court.

The policy has already failed to convince some of the administration's allies.

Two months ago, Rep. Barney Frank, an openly gay Massachusetts Democrat, surprised many in the gay community and the Pentagon -- by endorsing "don't ask, don't tell" as the best that gays could hope for in the face of opposition by Sen. Sam Nunn, the powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Frank angry

After hearing the details of the plan at the White House Thursday night, however, Mr. Frank was angry and disappointed.

"My recommendation last night to the president was that he not accept this," Mr. Frank told reporters.

He had been insisting that, under the plan, gays and lesbians enjoy personal freedom when off base and out of uniform.

Mr. Nunn, a Georgia Democrat and an opponent of admitting gays to the military, also served notice that if he isn't pleased, he'll go his own way as well.

Mr. Nunn said on the Senate floor he would push for a law to ban military service by people with "a propensity to engage in homosexual acts," whatever Mr. Clinton decides.

"I believe it is essential that the Congress codify the policies regarding homosexuality in the armed forces," Mr. Nunn said.

White House officials said yesterday that the plan prescribes new rules for the way investigations against suspected homosexual soldiers would be launched.

A single complaint would not be enough, they said, though two or more might well trigger an investigation. Nor would attendance at a gay church, gay bar or gay rights demonstration automatically prompt an investigation.

To end witch hunts

"This will eliminate witch hunts," said one senior administration official.

Nevertheless, the policy allows for those in uniform to be drummed out of the service for "homosexual conduct," and it includes speech -- declaring one's homosexuality -- as a form of conduct, White House aides said.

White House officials, aware that gay leaders will see acceptance of such rules as an abject betrayal of Mr. Clinton's campaign promise to lift the ban, insisted yesterday that this is all the president could get through Congress.

One official suggested that those who want the president to "stand on principle" and simply issue an executive order doing away with the ban wouldn't be advancing the causes of gay rights because the Congress would simply write the ban into law.

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