A day after President Obama signed legislation repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" ban on openly gay troops, Defense Secretary Robert Gates had a different message for senior Pentagon officials: The restrictions remain in effect, and service members who violate the 17-year-old law could still face "adverse consequences."
The memorandum from the Defense chief highlights the unusual nature of the compromise legislation that Obama signed into law in a high-profile ceremony at the Interior Department on Wednesday. The bill formally struck down the don't ask, don't tell provisions, but openly gay troops will only be allowed to serve 60 days after Obama, Gates, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen each certify that the Pentagon is prepared to implement the repeal without harming military readiness.
Until those two months have elapsed, Gates noted in the memo, the don't ask, don't tell provisions "remain in force and effect."
"To prevent any confusion, I want to be perfectly clear: At this time, there are no new changes to any existing department or service policies," Gates wrote to senior officials such as Clifford Stanley, undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, who is the department's point man on implementing the repeal. "Service members who alter their personal conduct during this period may face adverse consequences."
The final phase of the long political struggle over the restrictions exposed deep fissures within the Pentagon: Gates and Mullen lobbied lawmakers for a repeal of don't ask, don't tell, while other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff--most notably Gen. James Amos, the Marine Corps commandant--argued strongly for keeping the provisions in place, at least until the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan came to an end. In congressional testimony, Amos warned that Marine ground forces who live and fight in close quarters would be uneasy about having openly gay troops in their midst, potentially disrupting the units while they are already engaged in difficult and dangerous combat.
Still, the Gates memo is in many ways a formality. Even before Wednesday's signing ceremony, the law had been effectively repealed months earlier when the Pentagon--at Gates's direction--adopted bureaucratic changes making it extraordinarily difficult to investigate or discharge gay troops.
Last March, Gates put in place new rules that limited the use of third-party accusations when investigating troops who were outed against their will. He also mandated that only Army colonels, Navy commanders, and other senior officers were allowed to open fact-finding proceedings against troops suspected of violating the don't ask, don't tell restrictions.
Gates went even further this fall, putting in place a second set of changes that meant that troops in violation of the ban could only be discharged by the secretaries of the Army, Navy or Air Force. Even then, the secretaries need the approval of two other high-ranking Pentagon officials--Stanley and Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson--before the troops are actually drummed out of the military.
The two sets of changes slowed the number of investigations and discharges dramatically. Pentagon statistics show that just 428 troops were discharged in 2009, the last full year for which data are available. That is down sharply from the 633 discharged in 2003 and the 1,273 drummed out of the military in 2001, the highest figure on record. Defense officials and advocates for gay troops expect the 2010 figures to be even lower. Several advocacy groups say they haven't heard of any discharges at all in months.