On Feb. 2, Gates announced he'd ordered a review to understand the implications of a possible repeal of the 17-year-old law that bans gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. President Barack Obama has called on Congress to repeal the law.
The initial 45 days of that review, he said, produced findings that "would enforce the existing law in a fairer and more appropriate manner" and are supported by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. Mike Mullen and Vice Chairman Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright and the service chiefs.
"Today, I have approved a series of changes to the implementation of the current statute," Gates told reporters at a Pentagon news conference. "They were developed with full participation of the department's senior civilian and military leadership, and the changes are unanimously supported by Chairman Mullen, Vice Chairman Cartwright and the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff."
The changes include:
-- Only a general or flag officer may separate an enlisted member believed at the conclusion of an investigation to have engaged in homosexual conduct. Under previous policy, a colonel -- or for a captain in the Navy and Coast Guard -- could order separation.
-- A revision in what's needed to begin an inquiry or a separation proceeding. Information provided by a third party now must be given under oath, "discouraging the use of overheard statements and hearsay," Gates said.
-- Certain categories of confidential information -- such as information provided to lawyers, clergy and psychotherapists -- no longer will be used in support of discharges. Information provided to medical personnel in furtherance of treatment, or to a public-health official in the course of seeing professional assistance for domestic or physical abuse also is excluded, as well as information obtained in the process of security-clearance investigations, in accordance with existing Pentagon policies.
"These changes reflect some of the insights we have gained over 17 years of implementing the current law, including the need for consistency, oversight and clear standards," the secretary said. "I believe these changes represent an important improvement in the way the current law is put into practice -- above all, by providing a greater measure of common sense and common decency to a process for handling what are difficult and complex issues for all involved."
The military services have 30 days to conform their regulations to the changes. The new policies, however, took effect immediately upon Gates' announcement, meaning that they apply to all open cases, he said.
"All separations from this point forward will take place under the revised regulations," he said. "As of my signature, every case that is currently still open will be dealt with under these new regulations. So, they will be reinitiated by a flag-rank officer."
The intent for open, ongoing investigations is not to restart the proceedings, but to carry them forward with regard to the types of information allowed in the new policy, he said.
"As far as the services are concerned, every case that is open as of this morning will be reinitiated and evaluated under the new regulations that I've just set forth," Gates said.
The secretary also stressed that the policy changes are not an attempt to change the law, but rather to be prepared to offer Congress reliable information should the law be repealed.
The Pentagon's top lawyer, Jeh Johnson, and Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, commander of U.S. Army Europe, head Gates' working group charged with studying the potential implications of the law's repeal. The panel will report its findings by Dec. 1. The group will spend the next several months traveling to military installations to learn how service members and families will react to a potential repeal.
"There is a great deal we don't know about this [potential repeal of the law] in terms of the views of our service members, in terms of the views of their families and influencers," Gates said. "There is a lot we have to address in terms of what would be required in the way of changed regulations. There are a lot of unanswered questions in terms of the implementation of this proposed change.
"We need to do this thoroughly and professionally," he continued. "We need to do this right, and I think doing it hastily is very risky and does not address some of the concerns that have been expressed by the chiefs of staff of the services, and a number of questions that have been raised."