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WASHINGTON — Army Secretary John McHugh said Wednesday that he will not pursue discharges against gay soldiers who have outed themselves in private conversations with him.

McHugh said he feels such a course would go against the instruction given by President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates to “gauge the temperature” of the force regarding gays in the military and the future of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, which forbids gays from serving openly in the military.

“What the secretary has placed a moratorium on is going forward on discharges,” McHugh told Pentagon reporters. “It is not so stated, but I think a reasonable assumption.”

“I just felt it would be counterproductive” to punish gay soldiers who speak freely with him, McHugh said.

Gates announced last week “more humane” standards making it much more difficult for the military to initiate investigations of alleged homosexuality and raising the evidence required to pursue allegations through to a discharge while the Pentagon conducts a year-long review of the controversial law. The changes will permit gay military personnel a better climate in which to answer a coming survey on the issue. But Gates made clear the order did not protect troops who reveal their sexual orientation willingly.

McHugh explained that he felt, under the current directive, “an open and honest discussion is not an outing.”

When reporters asked if this was his way of getting around the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, McHugh replied, “I guess that’s one way to put it.”

McHugh said he had met gay soldiers during his tenure as Army secretary

“I’ve had men and women in uniform approach me and declare that they were gay and give me their opinion about how they feel about being [dismissed from the service],” he said.

But he said he felt it would be wrong to punish troops for giving honest answers when the president, defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, have all instructed commanders that they want an accurate assessment of how troops and families feel about gays serving openly in the military and what questions they may have about implementing a repeal of the ban.

McHugh stressed that his de facto moratorium was his decision and not the official policy of the department. He did not say if any other defense leaders were acting similarly.

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