By NANCY A. YOUSSEF AND MARGARET TALEV, McClatchy Newspapers
WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is expected to take the first concrete steps toward dismantling the ban on gays in the military service on Thursday, when Defense Secretary Robert Gates announces rules that will make it harder for other service members to force out suspected gays.
President Barack Obama has called for repealing the military's 1993 "don't ask, don't tell" law, with support from Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the nation's highest-ranking military officer.
Repealing the law requires congressional approval, but with lawmakers divided over the policy and overall policymaking stalled by fallout over passage of the health care overhaul, Gates is moving to roll back those provisions he can control without legislative action.
The changes he's expected to announce could protect as many as one in five of the servicemen and servicewomen who are kicked out because of their sexual orientation, according to two defense officials who were not authorized to speak on the record. They would make it harder for a gay person to be forced out purely on the basis of a sexual-orientation complaint from another service member, and would require any decision to go higher in the chain of command than is currently the case.
Under the existing policy, military officers are not supposed to inquire about service members' sexual orientation or seek to know it, while service members themselves are to keep quiet about it. The rule also requires officers to act if they learn that a subordinate is gay, however.
About 80 percent of those who have been forced out have been service members acknowledging that they're gay; the other 20 percent are individuals whom third parties brought to the attention of commanders.
The White House and Gates' spokesman declined to comment ahead of the announcement, which is expected Thursday morning.
Those who were forced out by other service members' complaints often say they were the targets of personal grudges. Some women who have been kicked out under the current law have said they were exposed after rebuffing the advances of male colleagues.
Since "don't ask, don't tell" went into effect, roughly 13,000 service members have left the military because of the rule.
"It is the first step," said Rick Jacobs, the chairman of the Courage Campaign, one of several national advocacy groups that support the repeal. "It's a concrete step. That's a good thing." At the same time, Jacobs said, "It's nowhere near enough."
"What it looks like Gates is doing is stopping third-party 'outings' so that people can't use intimidation and blackmail," Jacobs said.
"I'd like to see Gates say, 'I'm doing what I can do, but Congress has to act.' That's what we need to hear," he said.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, has introduced legislation with backing from some Senate Democrats to allow openly gay military service. With two wars under way, however, some lawmakers have indicated that they will oppose repeal, among them Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Jacobs said that ending the prohibition before the November elections could energize turnout for Democrats at the polls by younger voters as well as gays.
Sixty-nine percent of Americans support military service by openly gay men and women, according to a CNN/Opinion Research poll released last month.