WASHINGTON -- Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, said yesterday he would like to write President Clinton's policy on gays in the military into law -- if he and the rest of his panel can figure it out.
There was tremendous confusion among the senators on the committee at the first of two hearings to sort out details of the so-called "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue" policy that eases the military's 50-year-old ban on homosexuals.
Defense Secretary Les Aspin, who came with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to explain and sell the new policy, sometimes made things worse by appearing to give different answers to the same questions. At one point, he advised the committee to consult Attorney General Janet Reno about the actual power military commanders will have to investigate suspected gays in their units.
"This has to be pinned down," Mr. Nunn said in exasperation.
"We can't have a commander out there saying, 'What do I do?' and somebody says, 'Call the attorney general.'
"I think [the confusion] is going to get bigger rather than smaller," Mr. Nunn said. He expressed hope that the Pentagon's general counsel, who is scheduled to testify today on the legal aspects of the new policy, would "spell out what's old, what's new."
But Mr. Nunn -- who complained bitterly of being misunderstood by the news media -- said he supported Mr. Clinton's announcement Monday that gays could serve in the armed services if they kept their sexual orientation secret and did not engage in homosexual activity at any time in their military career.
These are the same grounds for discharge as in the previous policy, Mr. Aspin said.
The policy guidance prepared by the Pentagon says that homosexual acts, same-sex marriages and both public and private statements about one's homosexuality would not be allowed. But visiting a gay bar, reading homosexual magazines or marching in a gay-rights parade would be permitted.
The Clinton policy also limits the manner in which investigations could be launched, by giving military commanders broad discretion in responding to allegations and "credible information" about conduct.
Commanders were obligated under the old policy to investigate any indication that someone was gay, said Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
President Clinton angrily defended his policy yesterday when asked if his willingness to compromise with the military and members of Congress was a sign of weakness.
"I am the first president who ever took on this issue. Is that a sign of weakness? It may be a sign of madness, sir, but it is not a sign of weakness," he said in a satellite interview with a Wisconsin reporter.
'What is strong'
"And I think that we need to get our heads on straight about what is strong and what is weak when a president takes on tough issues, takes a tough stance, tries to get things done."
Police arrested about a dozen gay rights activists who refused to leave the sidewalk in front of the White House.
About 75 placard-carrying, chanting people took part in the noontime protest, some carrying a banner saying, "You can't ban us."
Mr. Nunn, whose influence in the Senate and strong pro-military views forced Mr. Clinton to back off an unqualified campaign pledge to lift the gay ban entirely, said he hoped a majority on the committee would agree to add language to the 1994 defense budget "that is consistent with the policy announced by the president."
"If we do not reach a consensus, the defense authorization bill will be subject to amendment on the floor of the Senate," he added, alluding to the likelihood of fierce battles between those seeking to codify the Clinton policy and others hoping to restore the full ban on gays in the military.
The committee begins drafting the bill this afternoon and probably will take up the Clinton policy Friday.
Mr. Aspin did not oppose this effort, saying members of Congress "can do what they want."
Also today, the House Armed Services Committee, which is also working on a version of the 1994 defense budget this week, will begin two days of hearings so that members can quiz Mr. Aspin, the military chiefs and government lawyers about the new policy.
Republicans want ban
Several Republicans are clamoring to add a homosexual ban to the budget bill, but they will run into trouble if the chiefs can persuade the panel's conservative Democrats to support the president.
At yesterday's hearing, Mr. Aspin and all six military chiefs described the wording of the new policy as an improvement over the old one and said that the new policy would be understood and properly implemented down the chain of command. "It's an eminently workable policy," Mr. Aspin said.
While endorsing the new policy, General Powell disputed Republican charges that Mr. Clinton as commander-in-chief had ordered the military leadership to support an easing of the homosexual ban. "We've drawn the line where it ought to be."
Confusion began to set in after Mr. Aspin explained that military commanders could no longer start an investigation based solely on a statement alleging that someone is homosexual. Later in the hearing, he said a commander could decide to investigate if that lone statement was deemed "credible."
When Mr. Nunn asked if a commander would have the discretion to use a single statement to launch an investigation and seek other evidence, Mr. Aspin replied: "Probably."
"This directly contradicts what you said in your opening statement," Mr. Nunn said.