Drop `don't ask, don't tell,' Gore urges

Democratic candidate vows to work toward gays serving openly in military

March 23, 2000|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As president, Al Gore would move expeditiously to eliminate the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy by urging Congress to let gays serve openly in uniform, Gore's national security adviser said yesterday.

"We're in a posture which makes it impossible for very good people to serve without living in fear that something private about themselves will be divulged and held against them," Leon S. Fuerth, the vice president's national security adviser, told reporters.

"That's one of the things he needs to work out very quickly upon taking office. The point is he has made a commitment to change the policy and he means it."

Homosexuals are barred by law from serving in the military.

Only by keeping their sexual orientation secret and not engaging in any homosexual acts can they serve in uniform, under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Recruiters and other military officials are prohibited from asking about a service member's sexual preference.

That policy was worked out seven years ago after President Clinton, in the face of strong criticism from the military in the early days of his first term, backed off from a campaign pledge to let gays serve openly.

After a soldier rumored to be gay was beaten to death by a fellow soldier in December at Fort Campbell, Ky., Gore -- the probable Democratic presidential nominee -- called for the elimination of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

"Gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve their country without discrimination," he said, adding that as president he would change the policy and propose legislation to "eliminate this unacceptable form of discrimination."

Fuerth did not modify Gore's position, but the aide signaled the vice president's intention to make action on the issue an early order of business should he win the White House.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, supports "don't ask, don't tell."

Fuerth acknowledged that a president cannot move on his own to let gays serve openly, but must work with Congress to change the law.

He also conceded the importance of winning support from military leaders.

"We're not really talking about an executive order that revolutionizes the situation," Fuerth said.

"We're talking about presidential action to enter in a dialogue with people who are concerned about this and to lead toward an outcome."

Gore's position is at odds with that of Pentagon officials, who say "don't ask, don't tell" is working and unveiled new training regulations on the policy last month.

Retired Gen. Carl Mundy, the former Marine commandant, recently said the policy was a "remarkably successful" compromise between a ban and allowing gays to serve openly.

"It is a simple fact that the presence of avowed homosexuals in a military organization is fundamentally incompatible with good order and discipline," Mundy wrote in a newspaper opinion piece.

Fuerth said many in the military "understand the justice" of allowing gay men and women to serve openly "even though they may have problems with it."

Michelle M. Benecke, a co-executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which provides legal support to gay military personnel, said, "No law that creates a double standard for men and women serving their country can work.

"It's unfair and it hurts the military itself. The law is denying the military of some of its best trained members."

Despite Gore's apparent desire to deal quickly with the matter, both sides in the debate say that Congress will be reluctant to revisit a divisive issue and might refuse to do so even with great prompting from the president.

"They don't want to reopen the whole thing. They don't want to have hearings," said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, a conservative group that is against gays serving in the military.

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