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Clinton Reaffirms Pledge on Homosexuals in Military

By Barton Gellman
The Washington Post

President-elect Bill Clinton, torn between gay-rights supporters and advisers who fear upheaval in the U.S. armed forces, Thursday reaffirmed a campaign pledge to permit acknowledged homosexuals in military service but said he would "consult with a lot of people" for an indefinite time "about what our options are."

His statement, which soft-pedaled another campaign promise to sign an "immediate repeal" of the gay ban, gave hope to both sides of the most explosive social question to face the uniformed services in decades. It may buy him time in his presidential transition, but he cannot easily dodge the question once he takes office.

Thursday's statement followed a behind-the-scenes campaign by members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, working through retired Adm. William J. Crowe Jr. and Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.) to convince Clinton that he would face serious repercussions in military ranks if he makes the change. Army Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan and other chiefs are urging Clinton to appoint a presidential commission "to study it for a year or two," according to an official knowledgeable about the lobbying effort.

The alternative could be costly. Two members of the Joint Chiefs are said by associates to be ready to resign over the issue, though such reports may prove exaggerated.

"Strategically, given his background, he can't afford this fight with his military establishment," the official said. "Politically, he just can't do it. So what you do is you study it. You say, `I want to get the right answer but I want to do what's best for the national security.' That takes it off the agenda."

Crowe, whose endorsement of Clinton in September was regarded by aides as the turning point in answering "the commander-in-chief question" about the untested Arkansas governor, has publicly disagreed with Clinton on the gay ban.

Gregory King of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, a leading gay-rights lobby group, Thursday rejected the call for a commission. "I expect that President-elect Clinton will repeal the ban on gays in the early days of a Clinton administration," he said. "Nothing he said today leads me to think that's not what he plans to do. He recognizes that the implementation may require further consultation and that is not in any way contradictory to his stated intent of ending the ban."

Clinton appeared to fuel both interpretations Thursday. He said he wanted "to put together a group of people and let them advise me about how we might best do this." That sounded as though he might mean a commission, but he made clear that he was "not going to change my position" on the ultimate question.

Even so, some Clinton defense advisers and military officers asserted that the issue is more complicated than first appeared in the presidential campaign.

Because the ban on gays is not a matter of law, Clinton could end it by executive decree. But Clinton must also decide whether to drop pending cases to enforce the 49-year-old policy of homosexual exclusion.