March 31, 2010 | by Chris Johnson
Gay advocates assail Obama’s Justice Department

Experts on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are lambasting the Justice Department, claiming the administration misrepresented their views in a legal brief aimed at thwarting a court challenge to the ban on open service.

Nathaniel Frank, a senior fellow at the Palm Center, a think tank at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said the Obama administration mischaracterized his views on the impact that open service would have on privacy issues.

“The way they portrayed me is preposterous and I’m not sure that any person in good faith hearing what I had to say could conclude what the [Department of Justice] concluded in their [request for] summary judgment,” he said. “I specifically said having a concern about privacy is not irrational, but using that privacy concern as an argument for the need to ban gays is irrational.”

Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, similarly claimed the Justice Department misrepresented what he said in depositions about privacy arguments, and even went so far as to say the Obama administration lawyers weren’t being truthful.

“They completely misrepresented my statement in the deposition,” Belkin said. “They were not being truthful about my statement because they said that I claimed that there is a rational basis for the privacy arguments, and I claimed no such thing.”

In a request for summary judgment released earlier this week, the Justice Department names Frank and Belkin as among the experts on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” who gave depositions in the case of Log Cabin v. United States. The lawsuit seeks to overturn the ban on the basis that it infringes upon the First Amendment rights of LGBT service members.

Both Frank and Belkin were questioned during deposition about whether privacy concerns for service members constituted a rational basis for the enactment of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 1993.

The brief says Frank “acknowledged” during his deposition that “privacy concerns such as those on which Congress relied were not irrational.” But Frank disputed this characterization, pointing to his remarks during deposition.

According to an excerpt of the deposition obtained by DC Agenda, Frank was asked about privacy issues in the context of whether former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell’s statement in 1993 that service members “are required to live in communal settings that force intimacy and provide little privacy” was based on professional military judgment.

Frank replied that Powell — whose position has since evolved to endorse the Pentagon’s process for repealing the law — may have had concerns with privacy as a general matter based on professional judgment, but said Powell’s statement doesn’t “constitute an argument for keeping out open homosexuals.”

“Because what he says here is that service members are required to serve with very little privacy, so it doesn’t make any sense to me to conclude from that that there is a justification to exclude open homosexuals since he’s just acknowledged that part of being in the military means sacrificing privacy,” Frank said in his deposition.

It’s for this reason that Frank is now saying the Justice Department misrepresented his views in the brief against the lawsuit.

“So I really said the opposite of what the DOJ motion claims,” he said. “I made very clear that I would not call those feelings [about privacy] irrational, but nor would I call it rational to use that feeling as a legitimate basis for excluding a whole group of people. And that’s all there in the record.”

Belkin similarly cried foul, claiming the Justice Department mischaracterized his deposition in the brief. The administration says that Belkin testified that “the privacy basis is rational in circumstances such as combat where private accommodations are not possible.”

“Dr. Belkin studied the experience of the Israeli military and found that heterosexual concern about privacy necessitated, in certain instances, separate accommodations or work arrangements for heterosexual service members,” says the brief. “Dr. Belkin also acknowledged similar findings with respect to Congress’ concern regarding sexual tension within the military.”

According to the brief, Belkin also “pointedly admitted” people in the military have sex with each other, and some service members have “sex with other members of the same sex.”

But Belkin said the Justice Department’s account of his deposition and his alleged acknowledgement of a rational basis for privacy concerns was completely off the mark.

“People who defend ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ for almost 20 years have been confusing up with down and left with right,” he said. “If the Obama administration lawyers think that my remarks in any way constitute an acknowledgement of the rational basis for the privacy rationale, then they need a new legal team.”

Belkin said the Justice Department neglected to mention major points about his deposition. He said he brought up men having sex with other men because he believes straight men would be having sex with men in the military regardless of the ban.

“Think for a minute about prisons,” he said. “It’s not exactly the same, but the point is not that gays are responsible for gay sex, but a lot of people have same-sex sex in the military and the privacy rationale does not take that into account. The privacy rationale is premised on the assumption that it’s only gays who having sex, so you have to get rid of the gays if you want to get rid of that kind of thing.”

Belkin also said the Justice Department misconstrued his take on there being a rational basis for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” because some straight service members are uncomfortable around gay service members.

“It’s absolutely true that some heterosexual service members are uncomfortable in front of gay service members, but that in no way constitutes a rational basis for the privacy rationale because gays and lesbians are already serving with straight service members — and the conditions in the barracks and the showers are not going to change after the repeal of the ban,” he said.

The Justice Department didn’t respond to a request for comment on Frank and Belkin’s assertions that they were mischaracterized in the brief.

Frank also took issue with the Justice Department’s repeated references to experts on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” with the use of quotation marks.

For example, the brief says in a footnote that “LCR’s ‘experts’ ultimately seek to challenge the wisdom of the DADT policy, a challenge that is irrelevant under rational basis review.”

Frank said the repeated reference to experts in quotation marks is “highly unusual” for the Justice Department and “may have gone too far.”

“That’s a favorite tactic of the religious right to polish their anti-intellectual credentials, and make it seem like there’s no such things as a homosexual, so they’ll put homosexual in quotes,” he said.

The Obama administration defense of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” statute against the challenge from Log Cabin is causing consternation among advocacy groups seeking to repeal the law.

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said “we took a step backward” with the Justice Department brief in the move to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and that the brief “relies on arguments that were debunked and discredited in 1993, and even more so now.”

Solmonese also called on the administration to “show leadership, move the debate forward, and work with Congress to get repeal done” this year.

“While the Pentagon undertakes its review of how to implement repeal, Congress can and must move forward in repealing DADT in the same bill that put it into law more than 17 years ago — the defense authorization act,” he said. “And the president can and must provide the leadership necessary to get the law passed this year.”

Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, expressed similar disappointment in a statement responding to the brief.

“SLDN understands the Justice Department’s role in defending the constitutionality of federal laws, even ones with which its leaders do not agree,” Sarvis said. “However, there continues to be a big and unnecessary disconnect between what DOJ files in court and what the president says on Capitol Hill and to his top [Department of Defense] leadership team.”

Sarvis said he wants the White House to make clear to Congress that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is a priority this year for President Obama and for the president to include repeal language in budget language headed to Capitol Hill in the coming weeks.

“The president’s defense budget repeal language should mirror the words in his State of the Union speech to Congress and the American people,” Sarvis said.

In a statement, Tracy Schmaler, spokesperson for the Justice Department, said the administration is defending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as “it traditionally does when acts of Congress are challenged.”

“The department does not pick and choose which federal laws it will defend based on any one administration’s policy preferences,” she said.

Schmaler said Obama disagrees with the underlying judgments Congress used to pass “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and noted that the president “believes and has repeatedly affirmed that ['Don't Ask, Don't Tell'] is a bad policy that harms our national security and undermines our military effectiveness.”

“The president and his administration are working with the military leadership and Congress to repeal this discriminatory [law],” she said.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

13 Comments
  • I’ll bet that brief was drafted by one of the graduates of Pat Robertson’s diploma mill, Liberty University Law School, that the Bush Administration packed it with. This brief and the one 10 months ago defending DOMA (when we first realized that we were going to be betrayed by Obama) could only have come from a virulent homophobe.

  • Peter Rosenstein

    If what Belkin and Frank claim is true- then once again the Justice Department is at odds with what the Obama administration is saying and trying to find cover as they do so. It would be surprising that a senior level Justice Department official didn’t review this brief before it was submitted to the court and question whether Belkin and Frank, known opponents of DADT would give depositions that could be used to support it.

  • There is so much heterosexism in the Obama “Justice Department” that it isn’t even funny.

  • When it comes to gay issues, Obama’a actions more closely resemble Palin’s rhetoric. Or that of whore Warren.

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