WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, clearly indicating that he wanted to go farther, chipped away at the military ban on homosexuals yesterday in announcing a policy he called "an honorable compromise," but which gay leaders termed a near-complete retreat.
In a speech to senior military officers assembled at Ft. McNair here, the president conceded that the new policy dubbed "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue" is hardly "a perfect solution," adding that it is "not identical with some of my own goals."
Under the new policy, homosexuals will be allowed to serve in the military as long as they stay in the closet, remain celibate and, under most circumstances, deny their homosexuality.
But the president said the policy was a step forward for gays -- and for the military -- and called on the brass to help him implement it.
"As your commander-in-chief, I charge all of you to carry out this policy with fairness, with balance and with due regard for the privacy of individuals," the president said. "We must and will protect unit cohesion and troop morale. We must and will continue to have the best fighting force in the world."
The president's plan, which came not in an executive order, but in a directive from Defense Secretary Les Aspin to the service chiefs, faces two immediately hurdles. The first is in Congress where Sen. Sam Nunn, a fierce opponent of lifting the ban against gays, will hold hearings today. The Georgia Democrat has said that if he is not satisfied, he will move to codify the ban in legislation, which would make it harder to change in the future.
House leaders, including openly gay Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, were predicting that Mr. Clinton's policy would satisfy House members, meaning that they might not go along with the Senate.
The second challenge is in the courts. Gay rights lawyers, denouncing the new policy as flatly unconstitutional, vowed to begin filing new lawsuits within a week to try to overturn it as a violation of free speech and equal protection. Meanwhile, the Justice Department has gained more time from federal courts to prepare its initial legal defense of the policy in cases already pending -- originally due yesterday.
Although the Pentagon wants the Justice Department to make a hard-line defense of the policy, the department's top officials reportedly have been uncomfortable with that, and need more time to make up their minds whether to take that approach.
While Mr. Frank called the policy "an improvement," few gay rights leaders agreed with him. "He re-packaged discrimination," said Tim McFeeley, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, the nation's largest gay and lesbian political group. "I'm really sorry to see him give up so quickly. We elected a leader and got a barometer."
Endorsement from brass
By contrast, the president's plan was immediately endorsed by Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the service chiefs, who spoke after the president.
"I'm very, very pleased with this decision," said General Powell. "It's one all of the Joint Chiefs can fully support."
As expected, the new policy calls on the chiefs to:
* Stop asking recruits if they are gay or lesbian.
* Begin enforcing the sodomy statutes in the Uniform Code of Military Justice on heterosexuals as well as homosexuals.
* Limit the manner in which investigations into homosexuality are launched. The directive says that only unit commanders may authorize such investigations based on "credible information." A single accusation will no longer be enough to trigger an investigation, nor would simply going to a gay bar or marching in a gay rights demonstration.
"This is an end to witch hunts that spend millions of taxpayer dollars to ferret out individuals who have served their country well," the president said. "Improper conduct on or off base should remain grounds for discharge, but we will proceed with an even hand against everyone regardless of sexual orientation."
But in most respects that mattered to the military brass, the new policy is identical to the old one.
Once in the service, gays can still be discharged for "homosexual conduct." This conduct is defined in Mr. Aspin's directive as any activity, such as holding hands, same-sex dancing or kissing, that "demonstrates a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts."
In addition, under what may be the most controversial aspect of the policy, telling others of one's homosexuality would be considered homosexual conduct.
No distinction is made between gays in uniform and on-base or those off-base and out of uniform. Moreover, once a soldier, sailor or airman is identified as being gay or lesbian, that person must prove to the satisfaction of commanding officers that he or she will remain celibate in order to avoid being discharged.