The top Navy and Marine Corps officials expressed support Wednesday for the Pentagon’s review on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” without outright backing repeal — and voiced opposition to any legislative moratorium on discharges that Congress may enact before the study is complete.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway offered support for the Defense Department review during a House Armed Services Committee hearing geared toward the president’s budget request for the Navy Department.
Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), who’s said Congress should hear from military leaders before proceeding with repeal, questioned Roughead and Conway on whether they support overturning “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Roughead replied that his “personal view” is “to go forward with [the] assessment that has been called for by the Secretary of Defense.”
“There are a lot of bits of information, and surveys that have taken place, but there has never really been an assessment of the force that serves — and equally important to that force is the opinions of the families who support that force,” he said.
Conway said he thinks Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ plan would examine the issue “in a way that’s never been done,” an effort he supports. But Conway cautioned against enacting any change that would impair the military effectiveness of the armed forces.
“I would encourage your work, mine and that of the working group to be focused on a central issue — and that is the readiness of the armed forces of the United States to fight this nation’s wars,” he said. “That’s what our armed forces are intended to do.”
Even though Conway emphasized maintaining military readiness, his endorsement of the Pentagon review is noteworthy in part because media sources have reported he’s emerged in internal deliberations as a leading opponent of allowing gays to serve openly in the armed forces.
Both Roughead and Conway voiced opposition to enacting a legislative moratorium on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” discharges until the Pentagon completes its review. Senate Armed Services Committee Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has recently floated the possibility of addressing the law this year with a temporary halt to discharges.
“In regard to a moratorium, I believe that it would be extremely confusing to the force, and I do not recommend that,” Roughead said.
Conway agreed, echoing the notion that instituting a moratorium would be confusing.
“There’s an expression we have: Keep it simple,” Conway said. “I would encourage you either to change the law or not — but in the process, half measures, I think, will only be confusing in the end.”
By supporting the Pentagon’s review process and opposing a moratorium, Roughead and Conway echoed comments previously made by top leaders in the Army and Air Force. The new endorsements from Roughead and Conway means all the service chiefs are in alignment in backing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” review process.
Kevin Nix, spokesperson for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said in a statement that the testimony from Roughead and Conway was encouraging.
“We also found ourselves agreeing with Gen. Conway, both that military readiness must always be paramount and that this debate must be about full legislative repeal of the 1993 ban, not about confusing interim measures like a moratorium on discharges,” Nix said. “Congress should get ["Don't Ask, Don't Tell"] repeal done in this year’s defense authorization budget bill.”
Also during Wednesday’s hearing, Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.) asked how gays currently serving in the armed forces would be able to give their input for the Pentagon’s study without being outed and discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said people behind the working group would have “mechanisms for anonymous input” so gays in the military wouldn’t be in jeopardy of of violating “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” by simply responding to a survey.
Snyder also asked how the military was handling the recent decision rendered in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for Witt v. Air Force. The ruling, which was construed only to apply to the plaintiff’s case, concluded the military had to prove lesbian Maj. Margaret Witt’s presence in the Air Force was a detriment to the military before discharging her.
Mabus said he wasn’t familiar with the details of the case. Snyder noted that having certain rules in some areas and others for the rest of the country is creating confusion, even without a moratorium.
“There is already legal confusion that you all didn’t bring on yourselves,” Snyder said. “It’s being laid on you, but I think you’re going to need to figure that out fairly quickly because it is currently the law in the Ninth Circuit.”
Nix said SLDN agrees that the standard in the Witt case is “not being followed by the Navy and the other services.”
“Indeed, in the case of Air Force Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach, the Witt standard was not considered or followed at his board hearing,” Nix said. “The Defense Department has yet provided the services with any guidance whatsoever on Witt. This shortcoming further underscores that repeal needs to take place this year.”