A letter from Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Congress saying he opposes repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” until the Pentagon has completed its study of the issue has riled advocates who believe the time is now for ending the law.
In the April 30 letter to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, Gates said he believes “in the strongest possible terms” that the Defense Department must be allowed to conduct its review of lifting the ban on open service — due for completion December 1 — before “any legislative action” is taken by Congress.
Gates said “a critical element” of the review is engaging the armed forces and military families and said those in service “must be afforded” the opportunity to share “concerns, insights and suggestions” about this change.
“Therefore, I strongly oppose any legislation that seeks to change this policy prior to the completion of this vital engagement process,” Gates said. “Further, I hope Congress will not do so, as it would send a very damaging message to our men and women in uniform that in essence their views, concerns, and perspectives do not matter on an issue with such a direct impact and consequence for them and their families.”
Gates has been on the record in opposition to repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this year for at least a month. In response to inquiry from the Blade at a March 25 press conference, Gates said he doesn’t recommend a change in the law before the Pentagon completes its study.
In the letter, Gates said he’s responding to an April 28 inquiry from Skelton, who opposes “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal at this time. Skelton’s inquiry and Gates’ letter come on the heels of an announcement from U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that she plans to have a vote on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this year in her chamber of Congress.
“Is it the Speaker’s intention that a vote will be taken this year on [‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’] in the House,” Drew Hammill, a Pelosi spokesperson, told the Blade in a statement Monday.
In response to a later Blade inquiry on Gates’ letter, Hammill on Friday said Pelosi’s position is unchanged, although he used different language than before.
“The Speaker maintains her hope to repeal this discriminatory policy this year,” Hammill said.
Separately, Pelosi issued a statement publicly saying she believes a moratorium should be put in place for the time being.
“We all look forward to the report on the review of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy by the Defense Department,” she said. “In the meantime, the administration should immediately place a moratorium on dismissals under this policy until the review has been completed and Congress has acted.”
Advocates of repeal are balking at Gates for advising Congress to act on ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” at a later time.
Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, a think tank on gays in the military at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said in a statement Gates’ position would mean repeal won’t happen until 2013.
“The White House knows that the political environment will become more challenging over time,” Belkin said. “If repeal doesn’t happen this calendar year, it is unlikely to pass until after the next presidential election.”
In another statement, Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, called Gates’ letter “a significant cause for concern” for those supporting gay service members and said points in Gates’ letter are “patently offensive and false.”
“If the White House and the Department of Defense had been more engaged with us and had communicated with us better about the alternatives available, Secretary Gates would surely not feel that legislative action this year would disrespect the opinions of the troops or negatively impact them and their families,” Nicholson said.
In a statement responding to the letter, Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said President Obama’s commitment to repealing the ban on service “is unequivocal,” but suggested the White House is on board with holding off on ending the law.
“That’s why we’ve said that the implementation of any congressional repeal will be delayed until the DOD study of how best to implement that repeal is completed,” he said.
In a statement, Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, repudiated the White House statement and said Obama “appears to have reversed himself” from his State of the Union announcement on planning to work for repeal this year.
“We have the votes in the House and we’re close to having the votes in the Senate Armed Services Committee — the president, however is not helping us to get the votes we need,” he said.
Michael Cole, a Human Rights Campaign spokesperson, also disputed the notion that repeal can’t happen this year and said lawmakers can overturn “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as the Pentagon undertakes its review.
“There remains a path to repeal that respects the Pentagon Working Group and fulfills the president’s commitment to put [an] end to ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ this year,” he said. “What’s lacking is clarity and leadership and for the sake of the brave men and women in uniform, we expect and demand that clarity and leadership from the administration immediately.”