The Pentagon issued new directives yesterday aimed at combating harassment of homosexuals in the military, making no change in the five-year-old "don't ask, don't tell" policy but moving to reinforce compliance with it.
For the first time, formal instruction in procedures for dealing with gays will be incorporated into basic training of recruits and courses for commanders, supervisors and investigators. The new rules also require high-level reviews of investigations into alleged homosexual conduct by troops.
Michelle Benecke, who heads a legal group representing gay men and women in the military, welcomed the new measures as steps in the right direction. But she also faulted the Defense Department for failing to issue clearer limits on investigations.
While in the works for months, the directives emerged this week amid heightened media attention to the military's treatment of homosexuals. The beating death last month of a gay soldier at Fort Campbell, Ky., has ignited fresh outcries from gay rights groups that deep-seated prejudices against homosexuals in the ranks are continuing to go unchecked.
According to the Pentagon's own count, discharges of gay service personnel have continued to climb since introduction of the revised policy, from 617 in 1994 to 1,145 last year. Defense officials say the vast majority of separations have resulted from service personnel coming forward voluntarily to profess their homosexuality, automatically triggering their departure. Officials also suggest that some of the troops may be taking advantage of the policy to find an easy exit from the military.
But reports by Benecke's group, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), indicate that persistent taunting or other abusive behavior has driven many homosexuals to leave the military. Gay rights activists argue that individual service members can do little to combat harassment, because reporting it often brings more of the same, and even has prompted investigations into the sexual orientation of those being harassed.
In an initial attempt to cut down on such harassment, the Pentagon issued a directive two years ago instructing commanders to investigate any anti-gay threats. But the memo received little circulation in the field.
It was reissued yesterday with a critical sentence added, mandating the anti-harassment training for all troops, beginning in boot camp.
A senior defense official involved in drafting the measure said the idea for the training provision arose just 10 days ago. Pentagon authorities found legal justification for it in a Uniform Code of Military Justice statute that requires troops to receive instruction in policies on sexual misconduct, the official said.
A second directive published yesterday instituted three recommendations made 16 months ago by an internal Defense Department working group.
One provision invests the inspectors general of the military services with responsibility for ensuring that "all those charged with implementing homosexual conduct policy" receive appropriate training. Last year's study found a number of commanders, military lawyers and investigators with little or no training in how to handle gay service members.
Another provision orders lawyers at military installations to consult with senior legal officers at higher headquarters before initiating an investigation into alleged homosexual conduct. And a third measure directs that any "substantial investigation" into whether a service member "made a statement regarding his or her homosexuality for the purpose of seeking separation" be approved by the secretary of the relevant service.
"I've made it clear there is no room for harassment or threats in the military," Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said in a statement accompanying the directives. "I've instructed the military services to make sure that the policy is clearly understood and fairly enforced."
The "don't ask, don't tell" policy was a compromise between President Clinton's 1992 campaign pledge to eliminate the mandatory discharge of gays and resistance by the military and Congress to allowing homosexuals to serve freely.
Under the policy, gays can remain in the military so long as they do not openly acknowledge their sexual orientation or engage in homosexual activity. At the same time, the Pentagon agreed to stop searching for gays. Military authorities may investigate sexual orientation only if "credible information" surfaces about a person's homosexuality.
Gay rights activists assert that the policy has been applied unevenly and has failed to protect gays against harassment and hate crimes.
"What's been missing has been a strong commitment from the military leadership," Benecke said. "We're glad something finally is being done, but it shouldn't have taken this long. And given the magnitude of the problem, still more will be needed."
Among the major unresolved disputes is what to do about pretrial agreements. Military lawyers have been accused by gay rights activists of offering leniency to defendants in some cases in exchange for the names of other suspected gay service personnel. A senior defense official said a directive on pretrial agreements has been drafted but not yet finalized.