The Pentagon will announce later this week its decision to grant the spouses of gay servicemembers "certain benefits" still denied to them more than a year after the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," The Washington Post reported Tuesday.
Although Pentagon officials did not indicate what specific benefits will be extended without violating the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, according to a U.S. official and a congressional aide briefed on the decision, departing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta will make the announcement this week.
While some benefits are contingent on the successful repeal of the DOMA, many, including equal access to housing benefits, military ID cards, legal services and other spousal privileges, could be granted by Panetta independently making various regulatory changes.
Since assuming office as defense secretary in July 2011, Panetta has overseen the repeal of DADT and the lifting of the ban on women in combat positions, which the Pentagon announced just last month. In what the newspaper describes as Panetta's "final imprint on the armed forces," the decision to extend benefits to same-sex military families has been long sought by advocates who have been puzzled by the delay.
"Secretary Panetta established a strong civil rights record long before taking office at the Pentagon, so his unwillingness to extend support and recognition to gay and lesbian service members and their families where it is clearly within his authority to do so has baffled many of us," said OutServe-SLDN Executive Director Allyson Robinson in a statement released shortly after today’s news broke. "We are hopeful that he will not take half-measures here; for him to grant anything less than the full extent of benefits available under current law would be an anticlimactic end to an otherwise exemplary record on civil rights."
Late last month, former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, who is expected to succeed Panetta as defense secretary, said at his Senate confirmation hearing that he is "fully committed to implementing the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' and doing everything possible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our servicemembers."
Noting Hagel's remarks, Robinson said for Panetta to do anything less "would be to leave the job half done, leaving in place a self-imposed two-tier system that willingly denies to some service members benefits they have earned and treats them, their families, and their sacrifice as less than worthy."
Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin called on Panetta to extend every benefit possible under the law as the "logical next step in ensuring all our military families are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve."
"The military leadership have dragged their feet long enough," Griffin added in a statement released Tuesday. "Two years after 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' was relegated to the dustbin of history, it's time for our heroes in arms to finally receive the justice they deserve."
Panetta has faced increased pressure from outside groups as well as members of Congress to act before retiring. Speaking to reporters Jan. 25, White House press secretary Jay Carney said President Barack Obama is "absolutely focused on and aware of the need to further implement DADT and to ensure that proper benefits are provided," but would not say if Obama would pressure Panetta to act.
"In his last days before leaving office, Secretary Panetta can add to his already long list of accomplishments, take up this cause and make sure that the administration acts," said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), one of those who have writen to Panetta in recent weeks urging him to act, in a statement.
A Pentagon spokesperson would not confirm the Post's report, simply reiterating to Metro Weekly that the Defense Department continues to conduct "a deliberative and comprehensive review of the possibility of extending eligibility for benefits, when legally permitted, to same-sex domestic partners."
[Photo: Leon Panetta (Courtesy of Tech. Sgt. Jacob N. Bailey, U.S. Air Force/Wikimedia Commons).]
[Editor's note: This post has been updated to include statements from Chad Griffin and Rep. Adam Schiff.]