In Switch, Gore Vows To End `Don't Ask, Don't Tell' -- V.P. Says Gays Should Be Allowed To Freely Serve In Military

WASHINGTON - Vice President Al Gore said yesterday that President Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military should be abandoned and vowed to "eliminate this unacceptable form of discrimination" if elected president.

Gore's statement represents a change from the position he expressed this weekend. On Friday, Gore said the "don't ask, don't tell" policy has not worked in practice but stopped short of calling for its elimination.

Yesterday, in his sharpest public break with the administration he has served for seven years, Gore said "gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve their country without discrimination" and that he would "make those changes" as president.

Under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, military personnel are not supposed to be questioned about their sexual orientation but also cannot openly acknowledge their sexual orientation or participate in homosexual activities.

The policy is a political compromise drafted at the start of the administration, when Clinton found himself unable to fulfill a campaign pledge to lift the ban on gays in the military. But gay-rights groups have complained that the policy in practice has resulted in the ouster of more gays than under the previous rules. After first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton criticized "don't ask, don't tell" last week, President Clinton over the weekend said it was "out of whack" and should be re-evaluated.

Gore's statement yesterday came as Defense Secretary William Cohen ordered the Pentagon's inspector general to investigate whether lesbians and gays are being harassed in the ranks.

Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said Inspector General Donald Mancuso would conduct "spot checks" at an unspecified number of major installations to gauge whether there is a "climate" of harassment against gays. Bacon said the choice of installations would be left to Mancuso, who was given 90 days to conduct the probe. He also expressed confidence that investigators would find ways for gays and lesbians to speak out without putting them at risk.

"We are as determined as the president is to see that the policy is implemented fairly," Bacon said.