WASHINGTON — As promised, the Pentagon has begun examining how the ban on gays serving openly could be eased and then repealed, but a complete repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy is probably years away.
The two officials appointed to lead a yearlong internal assessment — Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, and Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson — met for the first time on Tuesday.
As that study gets under way, officials were expected by mid March to suggest ways to relax enforcement of the law. Of particular interest is minimizing cases of "third-party outings," where a service member is kicked out after being reported by others.
The protracted time line is about more than giving military leaders time to assess the impact on troops and put new rules in place. The multiyear process also is a strategic way of getting troops used to the idea before they have to accept change.
Reversing the military's policy on gays, which is based on a 1993 law and would require an act of Congress, would mark the biggest upheaval to the military's personnel policies since the 1948 executive order on racial integration.
The goal, according to senior defense and military officials, is to avoid the backlash that could result from imposing change too fast. While officials expect resistance from only a minority of service members and believe that it could be contained with discipline, officials fear isolated incidents of violence could erupt as a means of protest.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney, defense secretary in the first Bush administration, said Sunday he supports a review of the policy. "When the chiefs come forward and say we think we can do it, it strikes me it's time to reconsider the policy," he said. "I'm reluctant to second-guess the military in this regard."
Cheney, who has an openly gay daughter, said he thinks society has moved on from staunch opposition to gays serving in the military. "It's partly a generational question," he told ABC's This Week, adding that "things have changed significantly" since the policy took effect.
Obama's national security adviser, retired Marine Gen. James Jones, said on CNN's State of the Union that the policy "has to evolve with the social norms of what is acceptable and what is not."