Bill on gays in military quietly signed into law

December 14, 1993|By Lyle Denniston and Richard H.P. Sia | Lyle Denniston and Richard H.P. Sia,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, who stirred up waves of controversy over the military's 50-year-old ban on homosexuals, is taking a far quieter, measured approach in putting a new compromise policy into effect.

Justice Department lawyers warned the Supreme Court six weeks ago that the military was in crisis without a new policy. But despite Congress' endorsement nearly a month ago of the compromise -- signed into law by the president two weeks ago -- administration aides do not expect to have a policy ready to implement until late this month.

The issue, in fact, has been nearly invisible in recent weeks -- except in several federal courts, which have issued a series of rulings rejecting the Pentagon's defense of its right to treat gays differently just because they are gay. Another federal court hearing is scheduled for Thursday in San Francisco, in the case of Navy Petty Officer V. Keith Meinhold, one of the more celebrated challenges to the ban.

On Nov. 30, with no White House ceremony and with Mr. Clinton's aides issuing only a one-paragraph press release that escaped notice, the president signed into law the bill that endorses most of his so-called "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue" policy.

The Pentagon, which repeatedly said it would issue new rules to carry out the policy once Congress had acted, is still reviewing its plans. A set of regulations, to give military commanders specific guidance on what the policy means, may not be issued for another week at the earliest, according to a Pentagon official who asked not to be identified.

"My fear is that the [Pentagon's] general counsel will do it in the week between Christmas and New Year's, when no one's around," that official said yesterday.

In the meantime, gay rights groups have been helping find lawyers for gay soldiers and sailors who are being threatened with discharge under older policies that are to be replaced by the compromise. The Pentagon, according to those groups, has been acting only in sporadic cases while awaiting a new policy.

When the new policy takes effect, gays in the military will not be discharged automatically just because they are suspected of being gay, but they do face discharge if they publicly admit their gay sexual preference. New recruits may not be asked about their sexual lifestyle, and investigations of suspicions about an individual will not be started routinely.

Congress went along with that policy, determined to make it binding so as to head off any threat of lifting of the ban. At the end of last month, on the day Mr. Clinton held an elaborate ceremony to sign a new handgun control bill, he signed the bill on homosexuals in the military without personally mentioning it.

The signing also escaped the Pentagon's public attention. A widely circulated daily news summary known as the "Early Bird" made no mention of it in the next day's issue.

The bill signing apparently also eluded aides to Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, the powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

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