Top Pentagon leaders announced Tuesday their support for allowing gays, lesbians and bisexuals to serve openly in the U.S. military while unveiling new plans for a working group that will examine the impact of such a change in the armed forces.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen made the remarks in the first Senate hearing in 17 years dedicated to the issue of gays in the military.
Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he favors allowing gays to serve openly as a matter of fairness for those who are serving in the armed forces.
“Speaking for myself, and myself only, it is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly is the right thing to do,” Mullen said. “No matter how I look at this issue, I cannot escape … the fact that we have in place a policy that forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.”
Gates similarly expressed support for ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” noting President Obama’s last week restated his commitment to repealing the law in his State of the Union address.
“I fully support the president’s decision,” he said. “The question before us is not whether the military decides to makes this change, but how we best prepare for it. We have received our orders from the commander-in-chief and we are moving out accordingly.”
Mullen and Gates’ support for allowing gays to serve in the U.S. military stands in stark contrast to how military leaders in 1993 opposed open service and favored “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
The Senate panel received Mullen and Gates’ endorsement of allowing gays to serve openly in the U.S. military with mixed reactions — with those opposing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” applauding them and those supporting the policy expressing their discontent.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), ranking Republican on the committee and strong proponent of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” said he was “deeply disappointed” with Gates’ testimony and said it showed his bias on the issue.
“It would be far more appropriate, I say with great respect, to determine whether repeal of this law is appropriate and what the effects it would have on the readiness and the effectiveness of the military before deciding on whether we should repeal the law or not,” he said.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) noted Mullen only came out in favor of allowing open service after Obama announced his intent to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” suggesting Mullen was taking that position to fall in line with his superior.
Sessions said Mullen’s position would interfere with his subordinates’ ability to evaluate “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the implication of its repeal.
“I guess, if it was a trial, we would perhaps raise the undue command influence defense flag,” Sessions said.
But Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) came to the defense of Mullen, saying the admiral was showing leadership and acting as required by a Senate-confirmed nominee by expressing his personal opinion.
“It was clear to me and, I think, clear to most of us that you think this is a view that you hold in your conscience and not given to us because you were directed to by anybody, including the commander-in-chief,” Levin said.
Gates and Mullen expressed support for a change in policy while at the same time highlighting the importance of a new Pentagon working group that would examine the issue.
Mullen said he didn’t know fully what impact ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would have throughout the armed forces — especially in a time of two wars — and said further investigation would bring to light those implications.
“That there will be legal, social and perhaps even infrastructure changes to be made certainly seems plausible,” Mullen said. “We would all like to have a better handle on these types of concerns.”
Gates unveiled new plans for a working group that he said would examine the implications of ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” By the end of this year, the group is charged with producing recommendations in the form of an implementation plan in the event Congress decides to repeal the statute.
Defense Department General Counsel Jeh Jonson and Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Army Europe, have been chosen to lead this working group, Gates said.
The working group, Gates said, would be charged with reaching out to the force to understand their views about repeal, examining changes in regulations and policy that need to be made and looking at the potential impact of a change in law on military readiness.
To supplement the efforts of this working group, Gates said the Pentagon will ask the RAND Corp. to update its 1993 study on the impact of allowing gays to serve in the military, which at the time found that open service wouldn’t be detrimental to the U.S. military.
In addition to the working group, Gates said he’s directed the Pentagon to review the regulations used to implement “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and, within 45 days, present recommendations that could be applied under existing law to “enforce this policy in a more humane and fair manner.”
“You may recall that I asked the Department’s general counsel to conduct a preliminary review of this matter last year,” Gates said. “Based on that preliminary review, we believe that we have a degree of latitude within the existing law to change our internal procedures in a manner that is more appropriate and fair to our men and women in uniform.”
While the recommendations aren’t yet complete, Gates said the Pentagon is considering a number of options that could allow for greater latitude on discharging gay service members under current law.
Gates said it’s possible to change implementation of current law by raising the rank of officers who are authorized to either initiate or conduct inquiries under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He also said officials can “raise the bar” on what is considered credible information or who is considered a credible source to start an inquiry on a service member.
“Overall, we can reduce the instances in which the service member who is trying to serve the country honorably is outed by a third-person with the motive to harm the service member,” Gates said.
Many LGBT activists praised Gates and Mullen for coming out in favor of allowing gays to serve openly in the U.S. military and working to adjust the rules for discharges. Still, activists maintain that full repeal is still necessary.
Lt. Dan Choi, a gay U.S. Army infantry soldier who’s facing discharge after publicly coming out last year, told DC Agenda after the hearing that “there will be some impact” by the interim changes proposed by Gates, but said it’s “missing the point.”
“When you still have people that are lying about who they are, you haven’t solved the root of the problem,” Choi said. “‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is the establishment of a closeted policy, and I don’t think that anybody has to be closeted in our military.”
Lawmakers considering ‘Don’t Ask’ moratorium
Gates’ announcement on the formation of a new working group raises questions about whether Congress will act this year to repeal the law or instead wait until the working group completes its review.
Levin suggested he may include language that would change “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the upcoming defense authorization bill.
After Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) made a comment that senators need to find 60 votes to pass repeal legislation, Levin replied, “Unless there’s a provision in the defense authorization bill that goes to the floor, which would then require an amendment to strike it from the bill, in which case, the 60-vote rule would be turning the other way.”
Following the hearing, Levin told reporters that it’s possible to include in the defense authorization bill a moratorium on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that would be in place until the Pentagon completes its study.
“If we throw a moratorium on it, then what I consider to be a slow pace then would be more practical,” he said.
Asked whether he’s ruled out actual repeal in the defense authorization bill in favor of a moratorium, Levin replied, “I haven’t ruled anything out.”
Also foreseeing the possibility of repeal this year is Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), one of the most vocal proponents in Congress of overturning “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
After the hearing, she told reporters she doesn’t think the time Gates is asking for review “will affect legislative progress” and that “we can actually write the bill and pass the bill now.”
“I think all that Adm. Mullen and Secretary Gates were saying is that they want to have a sensitivity to the impact it will have on the military and their families, and to have input in order to decide how to best to implement a policy change,” she said. “So, if they need to take time to do that, that’s fine and appropriate, but it doesn’t mean we can’t pass the repeal now, which is important to move forward on this.”
Gillibrand said she would support the inclusion of a moratorium in the defense authorization bill this year in addition to efforts for outright repeal. She said she thinks there are 60 votes in the Senate for full repeal and recalled how she considered a moratorium amendment last year on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that she ultimately didn’t introduce.
“When I did my bill on moratorium [and] I counted the votes, the only undecided Democrats at that time said their reasons were they wanted to see leadership in the military, or wanted to see leadership from the president,” she said. “And I think what this hearing brings us is leadership on both.”
But Christopher Neff, deputy executive director of the Palm Center, a think-tank on gays in the military at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was pessimistic about the chances of passing legislation to address “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this year.
He said the Pentagon’s establishment of a working group would make Congress reluctant to take action until the results of its study are known.
“I think that it would be anticipated that many legislators will be waiting to hear what comes out of the study group’s report at the end of the year,” Neff said. “I think that there are enough questions that are being raised that, I think, would be difficult without this study report.”
Whatever effort Congress takes in moving toward repeal this year, lawmakers are set to hear more testimony on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in later hearings.
Levin told reporters the Senate Armed Services Committee would revisit the issue of gays in the military Feb. 11 and will hear from an “outside panel” of expert witnesses.
He also said he expects senators to ask questions on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” when the service chiefs and service secretaries testify before Congress this month on the president’s budget request.
On the House said, Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), chair of the House Armed Services personnel subcommittee, has scheduled a hearing on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in March that will follow up on previous testimony the subcommittee heard in 2008.