Clinton firm on lifting ban on gays

RISKING his first serious clash with Congress, President Bill Clinton signalled yesterday that he means to honour an election pledge to repeal a 50-year-old ban on homosexuals serving in the armed forces.

Mr Clinton made clear his determination to honour his promise, which won him valuable campaign support from the gay community, during a two-hour meeting last night with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including their chairman, General Colin Powell. 'I intend to keep my commitment,' he said earlier.

Conceived as a symbol of progressive reform that could be enacted by simple presidential decree, the proposal to lift the ban has triggered a political whirlwind that Mr Clinton may in the end be powerless to control.

The extent of official resistance is spelt out in a widely leaked memorandum to Mr Clinton from his new Defense Secretary, Les Aspin. In it, Mr Aspin suggests a softly-softly approach, with the President engaging first in six months of consultation with members of Congress and the military leadership.

The report highlights the limits to Mr Clinton's room for manoeuvre, pointing out that even were he unilaterally to repeal the ban, members of Congress could reply simply by passing new legislation to reinstate it. Mr Aspin said he had been warned that fewer than one in three US senators favoured the change.

Reports that General Powell has threatened to resign if Mr Clinton persisted with his plan have been dismissed by administration officials. Last night's meeting, expected in advance to be tumultuous, was said by the White House to have been 'respectful, honest and cordial'. The White House hinted that Mr Clinton would confirm his plans later this week.

Earlier yesterday, Mr Clinton's spokesman, George Stephanopoulos, said: 'I suppose there may be opposition to this policy, but it's something that the President believes in,' he said.

General Powell and many of his colleagues are said to believe that allowing homosexuals into the ranks would damage morale, lead to resignations among those already serving, increase the risk of Aids among heterosexual soldiers and adversely affect recruitment.

While the basic goal may not be negotiable, the President has been urged by Mr Aspin to offer flexibility on how the integration of gays into the armed services should be handled. He is likely to accept the drafting of a code of conduct, that would bar behaviour that could cause unnecessary offence.

Mr Aspin spoke out in support of the President at the weekend, arguing that even without his campaign promise, the issues of gays in the military was becoming pressing. Sooner or later, he said, the courts would have ruled the ban unconstitutional and the military would have been forced to end the ban, 'without having any chance to control it all'.

Current policy dictates that new recruits be asked their sexual preference during interview, and be rejected if they admit to being homosexual. Moreover, men and women found while in service to be homosexuals are routinely dismissed. The case of a Navy Lieutenant, Tracy Thorne, who was ejected from the Navy last May after admitting his homosexuality on television, propelled the issue into the headlines early on the presidential campaign. Lt. Thorne was later temporarily reinstated.

Yesterday the Navy opened a hearing into the beating to death in October of homosexual shipmate, Allen Schindler, allegedly at the hands of fellow shipmates during an evening's shore leave at the Sasebo US Naval Base in Japan. The killing occurred a month after the victim admitted he was a homosexual. Gay activists have accused the Navy of trying to cover up the incident.

Mr Clinton appears to be fighting majority public opinion as well. A poll by Gallup for Newsweek magazine found 53 per cent opposing any change in military law on homosexuals, with only 35 per cent supporting the President's proposal. A New York Times survey showed the public slightly more evenly divided, with 42 per cent in favour of 'permitting homosexuals to serve in the miltary' and 48 per cent against. The remainder had no opinion.

(Photograph omitted)

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