WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday ordered all discharges under the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy to be done with the approval of a Pentagon-appointed team.
In a memo obtained by NBC News, Gates said discharges now must have approval from secretaries of the Army, Air Force and Navy, and only in consultation with the Pentagon's general counsel and undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.
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One senior defense official told NBC News the step was made to "ensure greater uniformity and care in the enforcement of the law" as the policy makes its way through the judicial system.
However, another Pentagon official said he refused to offer guidelines to recruiters on whether to accept applications for service from openly gay individuals and said he made it clear that anyone who applies would have to abide by the terms of "don't ask, don't tell" policy, according to NBC News.
The move comes a day after a federal appeals court ruled to freeze a judge's order halting the policy, even as the Pentagon had already informed recruiters to accept openly gay recruits and suspended discharge proceedings for gay service members. The 1993 policy says gays may serve but only if they keep secret their sexual orientation.
Courts weigh in
On Wednesday, the appellate court instructed lawyers for the gay rights group that brought the original lawsuit to file arguments in response by Monday.
The judges would then decide whether to extend the temporary stay while it considers the government's appeal of U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips' ruling that the policy was unconstitutional.
Government lawyers argue that striking down the policy and ordering the Pentagon to immediately allow openly gay service members could harm troop morale and unit cohesion when the military is fighting two wars.
President Barack Obama said last week that the Clinton-era law "will end on my watch" but added that "it has to be done in a way that is orderly, because we are involved in a war right now." He said he supports repeal of the policy, but only after careful review and an act of Congress.
The brief order was signed by the three 9th Circuit judges hearing emergency motions this month: Diarmuid F. O'Scannlain and Stephen S. Trott, who were appointed by President Ronald Reagan, and William A. Fletcher, an appointee of President Bill Clinton.
NBC News chief Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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