Washington The military's much-criticized policy on homosexuals in uniform is working, but training must be improved to eliminate anti-gay behavior like the abuse that led to a soldier's murder in Kentucky last year, the Defense Department said Friday.
"We think we've got it right this time," Carol DiBattiste, the undersecretary of the Air Force, told a news conference to publicize a new Pentagon program to re-emphasize in training that such behavior is not acceptable.
Speaking at the same news conference, Bernard Rostker, the undersecretary of defense, said he disagreed with President Clinton's statement last year, after the beating death of Pfc. Barry Winchell by a fellow soldier at Fort Campbell, Ky., that implementation of his policy on gays was "out of whack."
"I don't agree with that characterization. I think the policy is working reasonably well to provide a degree of safety" for gays in uniform, Rostker said. "The days of witch hunts, the days of stakeouts, are really gone."
Even so, Rostker said, more needs to be done to ensure that everyone in the military understands the policy.
The Clinton administration's policy on gays in the military is derived from a law passed in 1993 after Clinton failed to persuade Congress and the Pentagon to allow gays to serve openly. The policy, known as "don't ask, don't tell," holds that gays can serve in uniform so long as they don't reveal their sexual orientation. One problem, however, has been unwarranted investigations of people suspected of being homosexual. There also is a fear among discreetly gay service members that if they complain about harassment, they will be discharged.
Friday's announced plan to eliminate anti-gay behavior was created by a panel of civilian and military officials led by DiBattiste of the Air Force. It was in response to a Pentagon inspector general's report in March that found anti-gay behavior was commonplace in the military.
DiBattiste said the key to her panel's plan was adoption of an "overarching principle" meant to clarify to all in the military that unacceptable behavior includes not just abuse of gays but also "inappropriate comments or gestures."
"That's the high road that we need to take," she said.
The DiBattiste panel's 13-point "action plan" is largely reiteration of previous expressions of determination to stamp out anti-gay behavior and to hold military commanders responsible for policy infractions.
Michelle Benecke, an executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Fund, an advocate for gay rights in the military and a frequent critic of Pentagon policy, called the DiBattiste panel's report "thoughtful and considered."
"Today's recommendations, if implemented, would be a very good start," Benecke said.