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Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Pentagon lawyers are researching whether military officials can ignore the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in cases where servicemembers are “outed” against their will.

Gates comments Tuesday came less than a week after 77 House Democrats petitioned President Barack Obama to stop enforcement of the ban on homosexuals serving openly in the military until the law can be repealed.

On Monday, the White House reiterated its support for overturning the 1993 “don’t ask” law during a reception with gay and lesbian advocacy groups. White House and Pentagon officials have said they are looking for “responsible” ways to overturn the law without jeopardizing national security.

In separate meetings, Gates met with President Obama and senior military leaders met with administration officials last week, discussing legal parameters for a repeal and interim steps before Congress passes legislation changing the law.

“One of the things we’re looking at is there flexibility in how we apply this law,” he said. “To give an example … if somebody is outed by a third party, does that force us to take action?

“I don’t know the answer. But that’s the kind of thing we’re looking at, seeing if there’s a more humane way to apply the law until it gets changed.”

The White House had previously said it would not stop prosecutions of servicemembers whose sexual orientation is made public against their wishes. Gates said legal experts would have to weigh in on the matter before any decision is reached, calling the “don’t ask” law “inflexible.”

Last week 77 House Democrats sent a letter to Obama asking him to stop all “don’t ask” prosecutions until Congress can overturn the policy, calling it a matter of fairness and national security. The White House did not respond to the request.

Obama has said that a change in the policy must come from Congress, since lawmakers were the ones who enacted the ban on homosexuals 16 years ago. But he has not taken a public stance on legislation already in the House to dump “don’t ask,” and Senate leaders have said they will not move ahead with a bill until they get clear direction from the White House.

Meanwhile, Gates said Obama remained committed to overturning the ban in their conversations last week.

“We’re talking about how do we move forward on this, achieve this objective,” he said. “The issue is how do we begin these preparations and simultaneously have the administration move Congress forward to change the law.”

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