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updated 4/1/2010 8:15:15 PM ET 2010-04-02T00:15:15

Reversing course, Army Secretary John McHugh warned soldiers Thursday that they still can be discharged for admitting they are gay, saying he misspoke earlier this week when he suggested the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy had been temporarily suspended.

The public stumble by a senior service official is an indication of the issue's legal complexity. The Pentagon has said it wants to hear from gay troops as it conducts a broad study on how it could lift the ban, as President Barack Obama wants.

But to do that, gay service members would have to break the law, which prohibits them from discussing their sexual orientation.

Defense Department officials say they plan to hire an outside contractor to survey the troops, and that gay troops won't be punished for sharing their views with that third party.

"Until Congress repeals 'don't ask, don't tell,' it remains the law of the land and the Department of the Army and I will fulfill our obligation to uphold it," McHugh said in a statement Thursday.

‘There is no moratorium of the law’
Earlier in the week, when pressed by reporters, McHugh said he wouldn't try to discharge service members who in private conversations with him admitted to being gay. He also said he believed that Defense Secretary Robert Gates had placed a moratorium on dismissals while the Pentagon surveyed troops on their opinions.

On Thursday, McHugh said he misspoke.

"There is no moratorium of the law and neither (Gates) nor I would support one," McHugh said.

With regard to three soldiers who admitted to McHugh that they were gay, McHugh said he probably should have told them that they were violating the law and their conversation couldn't necessarily be kept confidential.

But he said he won't pursue administrative action against those individuals.

"Because of the informal and random manner in which these engagements occurred, I am unable to identify these soldiers and I am not in a position to formally pursue the matter," he added.

While the ban remains intact, the Pentagon has made it tougher to get discharged under the law. Earlier this month, Gates announced new guidelines that tighten the rules for evidence when someone reports that a soldier is gay and puts higher-ranking officers in charge of dismissal proceedings.

An estimated 13,000 people have been discharged under the law. Although most of the dismissals have been the result of gay service members outing themselves, advocates for repeal of the law say it has been used to drum out capable soldiers who never made their sexuality an issue.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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