President Clinton Says He Was Promised More Lenient Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell In 1993 (Updated)

Yesterday, as Republicans successfully filibustered the 2011 Defense Authorization Bill and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, President Bill Clinton told CBS’s Katie Couric that when he signed DADT into law, he was promised a far more lenient policy:

COURIC: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, do you ever regret it as a policy?

CLINTON: Oh yea, but keep in mind I didn’t choose this policy. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was only adopted when both Houes of Congress had voted by a huge veto proof margin to legislate the absolute ban on gays in the military if I didn’t do something else…They made it clear they would never let me order my executive order, gays to serve in the military…. And I got beat and so did they gay rights people got beat. […]

Now, when Colin Powell sold me on don’t pass, don’t tell, here’s what he said it would be: Gay service members would never get in trouble for going to gay bars, marching in gay rights parades as long as they weren’t in uniform, getting gay materials for any of the places they went or any of the things they did, as long as they didn’t talk about it. That was what they were promised. That’s a very different don’t ask, don’t tell than we got. What we got as soon as General Powell retired, was this vicious mid and lower level officer feedback when they for a year or so made it worse than it had been before. Then it sort fo settled down. But the reason I accepted it because it was better than an absolute ban and because I was promised it would be better than it was.

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Indeed, in his book Unfriendly Fire, DADT historian Nathaniel Frank writes that while President Clinton tried to hold firm on his campaign pledge to allow openly gay people to serve in the military, Congressional and military opposition forced him to compromise. Then-Sen. Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-ME) told Clinton that “[a]ny executive order can be overturned by act of Congress,” and eventually “Clinton began to make it clear that the compromise would involve only welcoming gays who did not engage in homosexual conduct, although the meaning of this was still being debated,” Frank wrote.


Clinton was assured that the military would not pursue witch hunts against gay soldiers, but his policy led to that and resulted in hundreds of other abuses. The regulations prevent the military from initiating cases, but they instruct commanders to begin investigations once a servicemembers’ orientation is known. As a result, the history of DADT is riddled with witch hunts and with discharges that feel like with hunts. Soldiers were both unintentionally outed by circumstances outside of their control or illegally pursued by their commanders. “The fact that the regulations were tightened by [Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates shows that there was plenty of room to tighten the regulations,” Frank told me.

“It is pretty disingenuous of Clinton, I mean he is on the right side now and he was on the right side then in hopes, but this is not about, he thought this was going to be a fine policy and would be fair and was just badly enforced,” Frank said. “This is about Clinton failed to get done what he tried to do, bless his heart he tried to do it. At a certain point he stopped spending political capitol and he lost. And since the end of his presidency in [19]98, [19]99, he’s been saying ‘the policy if out of whack, we should get rid of it,’ but he’s responsible for signing into law a bad policy.”


Colin Powell has issued a statement claiming that he did not misrepresent the policy:

Powell’s statement says Mr. Clinton “is incorrect in saying I misrepresented to him how the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ law of 1993 would be implemented by the military.” …

“In any event, that is beside the point,” the former general continued. “I retired a few months after the law was passed. President Clinton was commander-in-chief for the next seven years and he and his military leaders were responsible for the procedures implementing the law and the policy.”