WASHINGTON — President Clinton on Monday eased restrictions barring homosexuals from joining the U.S. military, hailing the change as "an honorable compromise," even though it leaves in place powerful tools to investigate gay men and lesbians for possible discharge on a wide range of misconduct findings.
Acknowledging that his options were severely constricted by opposition in Congress and among military leaders, Clinton admitted Monday that his policy "is not a perfect solution" and that it is unlikely to please anyone, including himself.
But Clinton called his action "a major step forward" that "provides greater protection to those who happen to be homosexual and want to serve their country honorably in uniform, obeying all the military's rules against sexual misconduct."
After more than six months of wrangling over the deeply divisive issue, attention now shifts to Congress, where Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Republicans will decide whether to push for a new law on military policy toward homosexuals. Such a law would supersede Clinton's action.
Nunn, an opponent of Clinton's original pledge to lift the ban on homosexuals, said Monday that he is "positive" about Clinton's initiative. At the same time, however, Nunn said that he would reserve final judgment until congressional hearings on the subject, scheduled to begin today, are completed.
In essence, Clinton's policy would allow gays to serve as long as they keep their sexual orientation to themselves. It discourages the military from conducting investigations on the mere suspicion of an individual's homosexuality.
But it still would give unit commanders broad latitude, allowing them to determine if "credible information" exists that an individual is engaging in homosexual conduct, including public displays of same-sex affection, or has committed homosexual sodomy, which will remain a crime under military law. The new policy strives to draw a distinction between sexual orientation and homosexual conduct. For instance, if a gay serviceman declares his homosexuality, he will be discharged unless he can prove that despite his homosexuality he is not engaging in prohibited conduct.
"If they mind their own business and live their private lives privately, they will be able to serve in the armed forces of the United States," said one defense official who played a central role in brokering the deal announced Monday. In deciding whether to investigate homosexuals for possible discharge, the official said: "We're expecting commanders to understand that there are limited investigative resources available and, generally speaking, that these personal and private matters ought to be lower on the priority list."
In a potentially important gesture, Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the armed services chiefs who will carry out the President's new policy declared their support and maintained that it will be understood and followed in the field.
"I think we have come up with a solution that we can all live with, that protects the force, that protects the privacy rights of all of those serving in the force and yet moves in the direction of those who wanted to have a more liberal policy with respect to homosexuals serving in the military," Powell said Monday.
"It is a policy that I believe all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff can fully, fully support and . . . be able to implement."
But lawmakers, including Nunn, on Monday sharpened their questions for the chiefs, whose personal and professional concerns about the policy will be examined in the hearings before the House and Senate armed services committees.
Senior defense officials, who negotiated at great length with the Joint Chiefs, predicted that the hearings would reveal little disagreement among them about the wisdom of the new policy. But lawmakers opposed to any easing of the military's gay ban can be expected to expose cracks in military support for Clinton's decision and use them to boost the prospects for House and Senate action on the issue.
Clinton's initiative appeared to cede substantial concessions to the military and deliver a significant blow to gay rights activists, who had lobbied the Administration to lift the ban entirely. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force denounced the policy as "completely unacceptable," saying that it "repackages discrimination and enforces the closet" for gay and lesbian service members.
Indeed, Tanya Domi, a former Army officer who is openly lesbian, added that Clinton's policy could make life even harder for homosexuals now closeted in the military. The military's earlier ban, in place since 1981, allowed a commander to give honorable discharges to homosexuals based on little firm evidence--an arrangement many gay men and lesbians preferred once discovered by military authorities.