WASHINGTON — After questions were raised about a Monday afternoon report declaring a change in Army policy for transgender service members, USA Today backtracked on the report — now reporting only that a change is being considered.
"We have nothing for you on this issue," Army spokeswoman Alayne Conway told BuzzFeed News early Monday evening, asked throughout the afternoon about the early afternoon report in USA Today that the "decision to discharge transgender soldiers from the Army now has to be made by a top, senior civilian official."
At 7:28 p.m., more than five hours after its initial report was published, USA Today backtracked, saying that the Army is only "consider[ing]" the move, and changing its characterization of a document it had obtained from an "undated memorandum" to a "draft."
Sources familiar with the effort told BuzzFeed News they have been aware that such a policy shift has been under consideration. Currently, all service branches have regulations and policies that ban transgender people from serving openly. Under current Army policies — not federal law, as was the case with out lesbian, gay, and bisexual service — transgender people are considered "administratively unfit" for service.
Under the proposed change, as detailed in the document obtained by USA Today and described by sources familiar with the effort, the authority to discharge trans service members in the Army would be raised to the Assistant Secretary of the Army (Manpower and Reserve Affairs). Currently, commanders in the field can initiate and finalize discharges of service members who are transgender.
Allyson Robinson, the policy director at SPARTA, an LGBT service members and veterans organization, characterized the document relied on by USA Today in its report as "unpublished draft" and urged caution.
"Jumping to conclusions based on early, unpublished drafts has the potential to jeopardize any positive adjustments to policy that might be under consideration," she told BuzzFeed News. "I wish it were true to say policy change had occurred. Unfortunately, in military personnel policy, there is no such thing as an 'unpublished change.'"
Further still, she added: "Until the Pentagon publishes updates to the governing regulations, there is no actionable change, and transgender service members are still at risk."
As recently as Monday evening, sources tell BuzzFeed News that the document — an All-Army Activity, or ALARACT, notice to commanders in the field — had not been published to those commanders.
"A USA Today reporter gave us the ... memo on Friday," the Palm Center's Aaron Belkin told BuzzFeed News, referring to it later as an "undated ALARACT."
The ACLU's Joshua Block, also quoted in the USA Today report, confirmed that he was provided the undated document on Feb. 13 as well. Block, who noted that the ACLU has been advocating on behalf of individual service members regarding transgender service, had no further information about the status of the document.
The document, if published, would echo actions taken while the Defense Department reviewed the "don't ask, don't tell" law in 2010. In March 2010, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that he was raising the level of the officer authorized to start separation proceedings under the law to a general or flag officer in the service member's chain of command. Later, in October 2010, the level was raised even higher, to allow discharges only to be approved by the secretaries of the service branches — in consultation with top Pentagon officials.
Advocates have been pushing for policy action or a review on trans service since before "don't ask, don't tell" even came to an end, and pressure is expected to heat up as the new defense secretary, Ash Carter, takes the helm. A report that Eric Fanning, currently the undersecretary of the Air Force, is expected to be named Carter's chief of staff added to those expectations.
Fanning, an out gay man, was one of the first military officials to express support for ending the policy banning out transgender service. Since then, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, also announced support for a review of the policy.
Pentagon spokesman Nate Christensen confirmed to BuzzFeed News that the Defense Department has undertaken a "routine, periodic review of the Department's medical accession policy," the medical standards for joining the military, "earlier this month." The news was first noted in the USA Today report.
"There is no specific review of the Department's transgender policy on-going," however, Christensen explained — saying that this is a review of the medical policy more broadly. "We routinely review our policies to make sure they are accurate, up-to-date and reflect any necessary changes since the Department's last policy review. The last review of this [medical policy] was conducted in 2011. The current periodic review is expected to take between 12-18 months; it is not a specific review of the Department's transgender policy."
Personnel and Readiness officials are conducting the review, Christensen said.