WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates plans to announce on Thursday interim steps that would, in some cases, make it more difficult for gays to be kicked out of the military, defense officials said on Wednesday.
The directives are the result of a 45-day review of what the Pentagon can do in the short-term while Congress considers President Barack Obama's call to repeal the existing "don't ask, don't tell" policy that bars homosexuals from serving openly in the U.S. military.
By December 1, the Pentagon is expected to complete a more sweeping review of how any repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" could be implemented.
The interim changes to be ordered by Gates are expected to include raising the rank of those allowed to begin investigation procedures against suspected violators of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, officials said.
Gates is also expected to raise the bar for what constitutes "credible" information to start an inquiry, and to curb expulsions of servicemen and women "outed" by third parties, the officials said on condition of anonymity because an announcement has yet to be made.
The changes are fashioned to give commanders the leeway to enforce the existing prohibitions in a "fair and more appropriate manner," a defense official said.
Another official said, "He's going to order policy changes within the confines of the existing law to make the procedures less draconian right now."
Critics say the Pentagon has been dragging its feet. It has opposed efforts advocated by some lawmakers to implement a moratorium or an outright repeal before the Pentagon's nearly yearlong review is completed.
Nathaniel Frank, a senior research fellow at the Palm Center, a research institute of the University of California, Santa Barbara, said a full-fledged ban on third-party outings would be "substantial."
"That could create a scenario where the world knows a servicemember is gay but the Pentagon continues to let her serve," said Frank, a proponent of repealing "don't ask, don't tell."
But Frank said it would be crucial to carefully review the wording of any changes in Pentagon enforcement, adding "the devil is in the details."
Only about a fifth of discharges are the result of third-party outings, the rest by direct admissions by gay servicemembers, according to Palm Center research.
People who oppose allowing gays to serve openly in the military argue that doing so would harm morale, undermine unit cohesion and hurt good order and discipline in the ranks.
While the top U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, has supported a repeal, several prominent officers and lawmakers have questioned lifting the ban at a time when the U.S. military is stretched by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Americans favor allowing gays to serve openly in the military by 57 percent to 36 percent, according to a recent poll by Quinnipiac University.
Additional reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Will Dunham and Stacey Joyce