* Only heads of Army, Air Force and Navy can kick out gays
* Ban on gays could be knocked down again next week
* Confusion in military, gay veterans tried to re-enlist
By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon tightened
controls on discharges of gay members of the military on
Thursday, as it predicted months of legal uncertainty over the
future of its ban on homosexuals.
The on-again, off-again "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy has
been revoked and reinstated by U.S. courts this month, fueling
confusion within the military as activists try to legally force
an end to a ban that Congress has failed to scrap on its own.
During an eight-day window that ended on Wednesday, the ban
ceased to exist thanks to federal judge's ruling -- prompting
veterans in New York City, Texas and elsewhere who had been
discharged for being gay to apply to re-enlist.
Officials also fear some active gay or lesbian troops may
have revealed their sexual orientation, potential grounds for
discharge now that the ban is back in force. But that could
change again next week.
Noting the confusion, Defense Secretary Robert Gates issued
a memo on Thursday scaling back the authority to kick out
troops under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which allows gay men and
lesbians to serve in secret but discharges them if their sexual
orientation is revealed.
Now, only the heads of the Army, Navy and Air Force, in
coordination with two other officials, will be allowed to
approve such discharges, as opposed to the hundreds of officers
who could previously enforce the ban.
"You should not interpret that as: We are going to
(discharge) more or less people," a senior U.S. defense
official told reporters.
"We are going to elevate these decisions to ensure
uniformity and care in the enforcement of the law. That's what
it is. It is what it is."
OBAMA UNDER PRESSURE
The headline-grabbing debate has put the Obama
administration in an uncomfortable position ahead of
congressional elections in which Republicans -- who largely
favor the ban -- are expected to make big gains.
President Barack Obama, who received strong support from
gay rights activists in his 2008 election, insists he supports
ending the ban. But his administration is challenging attempts
by a federal judge to impose one, saying it's up to Congress,
not the courts, and arguing that the military needs time to
integrate openly serving homosexuals in an orderly way.
Democrats in Congress failed to pass a repeal last month
and their chances in the future are uncertain.
U.S. defense officials acknowledge the legal battle is
expected to drag on for months.
The U.S. defense official noted the 9th U.S. Circuit Court
of Appeals in San Francisco, which just received the case,
usually takes about 16 months to reach a verdict.
"A case of this magnitude, maybe sooner," the official, who
is also an attorney, said. "But I think that likely (there will
be) a decision at some point in 2011."
The big question at the Pentagon is whether the 9th Circuit
Court will allow the ban to stay in force while it hears the
case. That ruling could come next week.
"No doubt, I will have additional guidance for you at some
point soon," Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and
Readiness Clifford Stanley said in a memo to top brass.
(Additional reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Stacey
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