Former US president Bill Clinton has said he regrets how the military’s ban on gays serving openly was implemented.

Speaking at the Netroots Nation conference in Pittsburgh on Thursday, Clinton was interrupted by a heckler who asked him whether he could call for a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) and the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) at that moment.

Both initiatives were signed into law by Clinton during his term as president between 1993 and 2001.

According to blogger Andrés Duque of Blabbeando, the heckler, identified as Lane Hudson, called out: “Mr President, will you call for a repeal of DOMA and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell right now? Please…”

After asking him to be seated, Clinton said he would be happy to discuss the question.

He said: “You wanna talk about Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, I’ll tell you exactly what happened. You couldn’t deliver me any support in the Congress and they voted by a veto-proof majority in both houses against my attempt to let gays serve in the military and the media supported them. They raised all kinds of devilment. And all most of you did was to attack me instead of getting some support in the congress. Now, that’s the truth.

“Secondly – it’s true – You know, you may have noticed that presidents aren’t dictators. They voted – they were about to vote for the old policy – by margins exceeding 80 per cent in the House and exceeding 70 per cent in the Senate. [They] gave test votes out there to send me a message that they were going to reverse any attempt I made by executive order to force them to accept gays into the military. And let me remind you that the public opinion is now more strongly in our favor than it was 16 years ago and I have continued supporting it. That John Shalikashvili, who was chairman of the joint chiefs of staff under me, was against [DADT]– was against letting gays serve – is now in favour of it. This is a different world. That’s the point I’m trying to make.”

Clinton continued: “Let me also say something that never got sufficient publicity at the time. When General Colin Powell came up with this Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, it was defined while he was chairman much differently than it was implemented.

“He said that, if you will accept this, here is what we’ll do. We will not pursue anyone, any military members out of uniform will be free to march in gay rights parades, go to gay bars, go to political meetings, whatever mailings they get, whatever they do in their private lives, none of this will be a basis for dismissal.

“It all turned out to be a fraud because of the enormous reaction against it among the middle level officers and down after it was promulgated and Colin was gone,” Clinton explained. “So nobody regrets how this was implemented… any more than I do.”

He added: “I hated what happened. I regret it. But I didn’t have, I didn’t think at the time, any choice if I wanted any progress to be made at all. Look, I think it’s ridiculous. Can you believe they spent – what did they spend? – 150,000 dollars to get rid of a valuable Arabic speaker recently?

“And, you know, the thing that changed me forever on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was when I learned that 130 gay service people were allowed to serve and risk their lives in the first Gulf War and all their commanders knew they were gay, they let them go and risk their lives ‘cause they needed them, and then as soon as the first Gulf War was over, they kicked them out. That’s all I needed to know, that’s all anybody needs to know, to know that this policy should be changed.”

However, on DOMA, the former president was less strident. He said: “The reason I signed DOMA was, and I said when I signed it, that I thought the question of whether gays should marry should be left out to states and the religious organisations, and if any church or other religious body wanted to recognise gay marriage they ought to. We were attempting at the time, in a very reactionary congress, to head off an attempt to send a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage to the states.

“I didn’t like signing DOMA, and I certainly didn’t like the constraints it would put on benefits, and I’ve done everything I’ve could, and I am proud to say that the State Department was the first federal department to restore benefits to gay partners in the Obama administration, and I think we are going forward in the right direction now for federal employees, and I don’t like that eith… I don’t like the DOMA. But actually all these things illustrate the point I was trying to make. America has rapidly moved to a different place to a lot of these issues and so what we have to decide is what we are going to do about it.”

Last month, Clinton said he was now in favour of gay marriage.

Speaking at the Campus Progress National Conference in Washington DC, Clinton was asked if he supported gay marriage.

He replied: “Yeah. I personally support people doing what they want to do. I think it’s wrong for someone to stop someone else from doing that [gay marriage].”

Clinton added he still did not believe gay marriage was “a federal question”.

To see a video clip of Clinton’s response, see below.