Announcing the adjustments Friday, Defense Secretary William Cohen said the aim was to ensure that the practices and protections under the 5-year-old policy are "clearly understood and fairly enforced" throughout the ranks.
Measured praise for the changes came from Michelle Benecke, co-director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, the leading advocacy group involving gays in the military.
"The real issue is whether leaders will be committed at every level to stop anti-gay harassment," said Benecke, a former Army officer. She said the updated guidelines say nothing about limits on investigations or how commanders in the field should proceed.
The new guidelines come just weeks after the bludgeoning death of a soldier in his barracks at Fort Campbell, Ky., renewed focus on gay harassment. Pfc. Barry L. Winchell, 21, had been rumored to be gay, although neither the Army nor his family would comment on his sexuality.
"Don't ask, don't tell" allows gays to serve in the military as long as their sexual orientation is not revealed. It took effect in February 1994 after Congress balked at President Clinton's efforts to end the military's ban on homosexuals.
Gay rights and civil rights groups say hostilities have risen since its adoption, and that soldiers who complain about being harassed are often subjected to questions about their sexuality.
White House spokesman Barry Toiv said the policy has worked overall, but "improvements were needed" in some areas and the new guidelines "are intended to address those issues."
The updated guidelines continue a prohibition against inquiries into a service member's sexual orientation, while allowing discharge for homosexual conduct or for a "propensity" to engage in homosexual conduct. A service member's statement that he or she is gay is considered evidence of that propensity.
Under the policy, the military isn't supposed to investigate sexual orientation unless "credible information" surfaces about a person's homosexuality.
The guidelines also prohibit investigators from soliciting information on sexual orientation from those who report they have been harassed or threatened.
"Service members should be able to report crimes and harassment free from fear of harm, reprisal or inappropriate or inadequate governmental response," Rudy de Leon, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said Friday in a memo to military leaders.
A new provision requires that the anti-harassment guidelines be "made part of training programs for law enforcement personnel, commanders and supervisors." And the guidelines are to be "incrporated into the required training that members of the armed forces receive upon entry into the armed forces and periodically thereafter," said a Pentagon statement.
Another change requires that investigations be conducted at higher levels in the military justice system, with input from "senior legal officers." That is a response to criticism that entry-level investigators or those lacking proper training had conducted many of the investigations.
In addition, any "substantial investigation" into whether a service member "made a statement regarding his or her homosexuality for the purpose of seeking separation" must be approved by the secretary of the relevant service.
Last year, 1,145 people were discharged from the armed forces for homosexuality, up from 997 in 1997, the Pentagon said. The number of discharges hit a low of 617 in 1994, the year the "don't ask, don't tell" policy took effect.