WASHINGTON - Pentagon chief Leon Panetta has decided to end the ban on gays serving openly in the armed services and certify that repealing the 17-year-old prohibition will not hurt the military's ability to fight, officials said Thursday.
His decision, which was expected, comes two weeks after the chiefs of the military services told Panetta that ending the ban would not affect military readiness. Dismantling the ban fulfills a 2008 campaign promise by President Barack Obama, who helped usher the repeal through Congress and signed it into law late last December.
But the move also drew vehement opposition from some in Congress and initial reluctance from military leaders, who worried that it could cause a backlash and erode troop cohesion on the battlefield.
Defense officials said the announcement will be made Friday afternoon. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision had not been made public.
President Barack Obama is also expected to certify the change. Repeal of the ban would become effective 60 days after certification, which could open the military to gays by the end of September. The law setting the stage for repeal required the defense secretary to certify to Congress that lifting the ban would not harm military readiness.
The so-called don't ask, don't tell policy was adopted during the Clinton administration and has come under an onslaught of legal challenges, including a federal court ruling in early July that ordered the government to immediate stop enforcing the gay ban.
Days later, however, the Obama administration appealed the ruling, saying that abruptly ending the ban would complicate the orderly process for repeal that had already be set in motion.
A San Francisco appeals court agreed but added a caveat: The government cannot investigate, penalize or discharge anyone for being openly gay.
The military services have conducted extensive internal studies and about five months of training to gauge how troops would react to the change. A survey of U.S. troops last year found that some two-thirds didn't care if the ban is lifted. Opposition to the repeal was strongest among combat troops, particularly Marines.
But as training has gone on this year, senior military leaders have said they've seen no real problems.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who retired at the end of June, told The Associated Press in an interview that he saw no roadblocks to the repeal and that people had been "mildly and pleasantly surprised at the lack of pushback in the training."
The bulk of the military has been trained on the new law, including a complex swath of details about how the change will or will not affect housing, transfers or other health and social benefits. In most cases, the guidelines demand that gays and lesbians be treated just like any other soldier, sailor, airman or Marine.
There will be differences, however, since same sex partners will not be given the same housing and other benefits as married couples. Instead, they more often will be treated like unmarried couples.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a former Army Ranger, said in a statement Thursday that the ban was "an ineffective policy that prevented talented, highly skilled soldiers from honorably serving our nation."
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a national organization representing gay troops, said Panetta's action is welcomed by gay and lesbian troops "who have had to serve their country in silence for far too long."