April 15, 2010 at 4:56 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Pentagon working with gay groups on ‘Don’t Ask’ review

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Gay organizations working to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are enjoying an open relationship with the Pentagon working group reviewing the law as they continue to express concerns about the study deviating from its purpose.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen established the working group following a Feb. 2 hearing on Capitol Hill as a way to examine how to implement an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” should Congress repeal the law. The work is expected to be completed Dec. 1.

Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said his organization has had a positive engagement with the working group since its inception.

“They brought us in — in the very beginning — to initially brief us on what they were planning to do, to answer any questions we had,” he said. “They were very open and inclusive, but not only to us. They were that way with our opposition as well.”

In one such conversation, Nicholson said the working group held a conference call to answer questions about the new regulations that were instituted last month to relax the implementation of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“There was a little bit of a worry, I think, in the beginning that maybe them bringing us in, being so open in answering questions, was a one-time, token gesture,” Nicholson said. “I’m pleased to say now it’s my impression that those worries, at least so far, have been unfounded. The working group has a primary point of contact for us within the Department of Defense, and that point of contact has been extremely open and extremely available.”

Nicholson said Servicemembers United first spoke with someone at the working group to express concern about the group’s mandate and noted it would set a bad precedent to poll the force on potential policy changes.

“The working group responded to that by telling us that the terms of reference have been issued, they are what they are and they don’t have control over them,” he said.

In a second round of suggestions, Nicholson said Servicemembers United passed along some ideas for the methodology the working group could institute to examine how to implement repeal. Some of the recommendations, he noted, were to advise against town hall meetings and focus groups to poll the force.

“Focus groups are a bad idea because of the phenomena of group think and posturing,” he said. “On any perceived controversial issue, you’re going to get a much a different set of answers if you ask people about it in a group rather than asking them one on one.”

Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, also said his organization’s staff have had weekly conversations and meetings with the working group.

“I think it’s been positive, ongoing,” he said. “It’s not a process that we asked for, or that we think is needed, but we’re dealing with the reality that it’s in place and we’re going to do everything that we can to make it work and have a positive contribution.”

In these conversations, Sarvis said SLDN has been recommending voices and organizations that work to end the ban on open service.

Another organization that has engaged with the working group is the Palm Center, a think tank on gays in the military at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Nathaniel Frank, a Palm Center research fellow, said he’s had a “good relationship” with the Pentagon working group.

“They’ve reached out to us consistently and they’ve been responsive to us and I’m impressed by that,” he said. “The question will be, obviously, what are the results of the study and how are they expressed. So that proof will be in the pudding.”

Frank said the working group has asked the Palm Center to make recommendations on a litany of issues, including how to identify the costs to the military of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“That doesn’t mean just financial costs,” he said. “It means a litany of costs to morale, recruitment, cohesion, the impact on GLB service members, and Palm is coming out with a memo that I’m finalizing now that tries to convey all of those costs.”

Frank said the working group also asked about the pitfalls of using focus groups; how to measure the views of military families; and how to empirically assess the impact of lifting the ban on unit cohesion.

Another item that Frank said he was asked about was getting the views of gay service members for the study without putting them at risk for discharge under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

This challenge has been repeatedly discussed in hearings on Capitol Hill and among those seeking repeal. In a statement released last week, Army Secretary John McHugh said the Pentagon is “likely” to employ a third party to solicit those views.

Sarvis said his understanding is the Pentagon is considering the use of a professional consultant or pollsters who have worked with the Pentagon before on manpower issues.

“In addition, I think they’re also looking to the RAND Corp. as part of that engagement,” he said.

But the decision on how the Defense Department will obtain these views is apparently not yet final. Cynthia Smith, a Pentagon spokesperson, said in a statement to DC Agenda on April 9 that the working group is still considering the best way to incorporate gay service members into the study.

“Getting the views of gay and lesbian service members is very important to the working group,” she said. “We are still in the process of developing the proper instrument to obtain this information from gay and lesbian service members currently serving.”

Frank said he would take issue with any decision from the Pentagon to use a third party to solicit the views of gay service members because it would create a situation where service members generally would speak to one group, and gay, lesbian and bisexual service members would talk to another.

“Uniform personnel … would be consulting service members generally and then they would employ civilians or a third party only to speak to known gays and lesbians,” he said. “There’s an unfairness there in having the military speak directly to straight service members and not to gay service members.”

A better solution, Frank said, would be for the Pentagon to issue new regulations that would enable all service members to speak to the working group without fear of being discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“The only consistent way to do it is to apply that uniformly to all people and not have separate standards, which is obviously the problem with the policy as it is,” he said.

Even with the openness between these groups and Pentagon officials, some repeal advocates say they have concerns about the working group’s direction.

Gates has repeatedly said the purpose of the group will be to examine how to implement an end to the ban should Congress repeal the law during the Senate hearing in February. But some repeal advocates say there’s a lack of clarity.

Nicholson said he has “big concerns” about the direction the group is heading, recalling testimony that Jeh Johnson, head of the Pentagon’s Office of General Counsel and co-chair of the group, gave before the House in March in which the results of the working group would inform how Congress would proceed on the issue.

“And that, I think, was very dangerous and was a new twist,” he said. “If the mission of the working group is to simply come up with an effective implementation management plan for after repeal takes effect, then there really should be no reason why Congress should need to wait for the outcome of the working group.”

Frank also acknowledged “some confusion” about whether the purpose of the working group is to study how to lift the ban or whether to lift the ban.

“I think the reason for that confusion is while the group says it’s studying how to lift the ban, given the strategic intention of the president, whether the ban is actually lifted is in the hands of the Congress,” Frank said. “So if the group comes out with a study that exaggerates the risks to cohesion, or other risks associated with lifting the ban, obviously, that will make it easier for obstructionists in Congress to try to block repeal.”

Frank called on leaders handling the group to “make it more clear that they are assessing how best to lift the ban” and note that the only reason they’re evaluating repeal is to determine how to mitigate any harm.

“It’s important to say that years and years of research across the board make clear that that impact will be negligible or non-existent, and most of us already know that,” he said.

Nicholson was particularly critical of the White House and said he thinks it’s “extremely concerning” President Obama hasn’t come out and clarified the study’s purpose. Nicholson noted that he’s been asking for clarification from the White House for several weeks now and hasn’t received a response.

“I just felt like with the working group, they’ve been very much great in communicating with us, been very receptive, I do get the impression that they’re honestly considering the suggestions we give to them,” he said. “The White House, on the other hand, it’s felt like we’ve been throwing suggestions down a black hole.”

Nicholson said he doesn’t think that White House officials are seriously considering his organization’s input and that “they ignore a lot of us for weeks at a time sometimes.”

“Unfortunately, the White House is not only not listening to or considering our suggestions and communicating with us, but they haven’t given any indication that they intend to clarify the position of the working group or curtail the expansion of its scope,” he said.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, disputed the notion that the White House wasn’t engaged with the Servicemembers United.

“The White House is actively engaged with Servicemembers United and other groups on many issues of interest to the LGBT community, including ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,'” he said in a statement.

But Sarvis said he thinks the group will stay on track with its mission as long as it adheres to its mandate and stays focused on implementing open service.

“If they move away from their mandate, if they get into polling on if or whether, or seeking the personal opinions of service members, then, yes,” he said, “I think we have a problem.”

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

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