WASHINGTON – The Army secretary said on Wednesday he would not discharge gay personnel who admitted their sexual orientation to him, despite the "don't ask, don't tell" stance that remains official military policy.
"What the secretary (of defense) has placed a moratorium on is going forward on discharges," Army Secretary John McHugh told defense reporters.
The statement seemed to indicate that some Pentagon leaders had already shifted their stance, at least regarding private admissions by gay troops, although Congress has not yet formally repealed the law banning declared homosexuals.
President Barack Obama has stated his determination to scrap the "don't ask, don't tell" policy initiated in 1993, which allows gays to serve in the military as long as they kept their sexual identity secret. The Defense Department is currently surveying troops about the possible impact of a repeal and aims to conclude its study by December.
The Pentagon last week issued new rules making it harder for the armed forces to discharge gay personnel, but admissions of homosexuality were still thought to be grounds for discharge under the existing law.
McHugh, a former Republican lawmaker nominated by Obama, suggested Defense Secretary Robert Gates backed turning a blind eye to such admissions during talks with troops about their feelings on ending the ban.
"It is not so stated but I think a reasonable assumption" that he need not pursue discharges, McHugh said.
He said he had already had heard admissions from active-duty personnel, but had taken no action. He assumed other military leaders were having similar experiences.
"What I'm trying to do is tell the troops that's it's OK to talk about this, no matter what their view is," said McHugh, the Army's top civilian official. He used the word "moratorium" loosely to describe the defacto Pentagon policy.
Obama called for the repeal in his State of the Union speech in January, putting a spotlight on the hot-button issue before congressional elections in November.
While the top U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, has supported repeal, several prominent offices and lawmakers have questioned lifting the ban at a time when the U.S. military is stretched by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Gates, Mullen and other Pentagon chiefs have also roundly opposed congressional calls for a broader moratorium on the 'don't ask, don't tell' law.
But even the more limited moratorium that McHugh described would be a victory for gay personnel who have feared that discussing their sexuality during the Pentagon review might end their military careers.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said that "don't ask, don't tell' remained in force, but acknowledged that being able to have open conversations with service members, including those who are gay, was necessary to the review process.
McHugh said he felt disciplining service members who admitted their sexuality would undermine the review effort.
"It would be counter-productive in trying to pursue the secretary and ultimately the president's policy objective ... to take disciplinary action against someone who has spoken openly and honestly," he said.
© 2013 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.