May 4, 2010 | by Chris Johnson
Repeal groups disagree on 'Don't Ask' strategy

The recently published letter from Defense Secretary Robert Gates advising Congress to wait on a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” vote has led to dispute among repeal advocates on the best way to move forward with legislation.

While most organizations are now saying the best way to proceed is a delayed implementation bill — or legislation that Congress would pass now and would take effect only after the Pentagon completes its study on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — one advocate is proposing a different strategy that was recently shot down by other groups.

In the weekend following the publication of the Gates letter, Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, a think-tank on gays in the military, circulated a proposed statement calling for legislation that would repeal the existing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” statute, 10 USC § 654, and provide no mandate to the Pentagon on whether to discharge openly LGBT service members.

The draft statement recalls a 2008 Palm Center report in which a commission of retired generals and admirals recommended a repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” statute and to “return authority for personnel policy under this law to the Department of Defense.” The report leaves the decision on whether or not to discharge LGBT service members to the Pentagon.

Adopting the views of this commission, the proposal Belkin circulated says legislation returning authority to DOD is the best way to go because “optimal policy sometimes collides with political reality.”

“Consistent with the 2008 General and Flag Officer’s Report, we believe that by repealing 10 USC § 654 and returning authority for personnel policy to the Department of Defense at this time, Congress would enhance national security,” the statement reads. “Repeal would not require the military to take action, but would enable it to implement forthcoming recommendations from the Pentagon study group.”

The statement calls on congressional leadership and the LGBT community “to consider this option seriously.”

Belkin said he circulated this statement because he believes repeal with no mandate for non-discrimination is “the best the community can get” after the publication of Gates’ letter. He added passage of legislation returning authority to the Pentagon would be “a huge victory” and “basically 90 percent of what we need.”

According to Belkin, most of the major repeal organizations signed this statement in support, but removed their names before the statement could be formally published. Belkin declined to identify which advocates initially signed their name or say why they ultimately decided to remove their signatures.

Belkin also said he was the target of hostility among repeal advocates for circulating this proposal.

“Emotions are running pretty high and I’ve already been yelled at and accused of abandoning the troops, seeking publicity for its own sake, and other bad stuff,” he said.

Belkin said he’s hopeful his “political logic is wrong” on this issue and repeal advocates “will be able to secure passage of repeal along with a non-discrimination mandate at some point in the next two or three years.”

With support for his proposal withdrawn, Belkin said he’s “not sure” whether he’ll solicit additional support at a later time to ask repeal advocates to come on board with his idea.

Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said he was solicited for approval of the proposal, but never signed in support.

“I don’t think right now — with the way things are currently aligned and the way things are currently set up strategically — I don’t think that that is best the route to go,” Nicholson said.

Still, Nicholson said the option of legislation that would repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” statute and return authority to the Pentagon has been discussed among repeal advocates. Nicholson said some repeal supporters said they won’t endorse any legislation that lacks non-discrimination language in any event, but he said his position is more nuanced.

“It’s an option that I’ve said under certain circumstances could be merited, but I don’t it’s the right thing right now — because things are happening real fast — and things are changing several times a day sometimes,” he said.

Repeal supporters in Congress like Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) or Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), Nicholson said, may “decide it’s in our best interest to go that route” if the votes are lacking for an alternative. But Nicholson said he thinks “we’re not there yet.”

Nicholson said he was told Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, was being consulted on the proposal, and Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, had already signed on to the proposal.

“People were sort of trusting Aaron, and I think when people read it, they decided, OK, this isn’t something that I want to support,” Nicholson said.

David Smith, HRC’s vice president of programs, denied Solmonese signed his name to the statement and later removed it. He said he wouldn’t discuss behind-the-scenes policy discussions among repeal advocates and maintained HRC isn’t on board with Belkin’s proposal.

Sarvis also said he didn’t sign on to the proposal and said SLDN has “made clear” it will continue to fight for legislation for “full repeal this year.”

In lieu of legislation to return authority to the Pentagon, most repeal advocates are pressing for a delayed implementation bill as the best chance for legislation that would pass this year.

Such a measure would technically meet standard set forth in a White House statement on Friday following the publication of Gates letter, which said “the implementation of any congressional repeal will be delayed until the DOD study of how best to implement that repeal is completed.”

Smith went so far as to call delayed implementation an “essential” component of any bill that would achieve legislative success this year.

“I believe that the work of the working group likely needs to be completed before repeal can be implemented, but it still can be executed this year and implemented over a period of time based on the working group recommendations,” Smith said.

Sarvis said SLDN has supported the approach of delayed implementation before in what he called a “60, 60, 60” plan for repeal.

“We delay repeal of [‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’] for 180 days after the president signs the defense bill to insure a timely transition to open service and an orderly implementation,” he said.

Under the plan, Gates would retain authority for discharges immediately upon the legislation’s passage. An estimated 60 days later, the Pentagon working group would make its recommendations on December 1. Once an additional 60 days passes, the Defense Department can issue guidelines on implementing open service to the services, and 60 days later, the services can issue their own regulations.

Nicholson said the delayed implementation bill is “already a concession itself” from the outright repeal that advocates had previously been pursuing.

“We’re trying to get to a starting point, so we’ve started talking about delayed implementation,” he said. “That seems to be more acceptable to some of those who are not supportive of immediate repeal or an immediate stoppage of discharges.”

Even Belkin called delayed implementation legislation the “best alternative for protecting for our national security” at this point if a bill for outright repeal isn’t possible.

However, Belkin said the situation is different when considering “political reality,” and predicted votes will be lacking in Congress this year for passing a delayed implementation bill.

“The bottom line is that there weren’t enough votes in the Senate for the delayed implementation — or for any bill with an implementation mandate – before Gates’ letter,” Belkin said. “There’s certainly not enough votes after the letter, and so it’s not a policy objection to the bill, it’s a question of political reality.”

The entirety of the Palm Center draft proposal as provided by Belkin follows:

STATEMENT BY MEMBERS OF THE ‘DON’T ASK, DON’T TELL’ REPEAL COMMUNITY

As is widely known, the policy known as “don’t ask, don’t tell” consists of two related but distinct parts: a law known as 10 USC § 654 and a series of Pentagon implementing regulations which spell out how the military is to carry out Congressional law. Two years ago, a bipartisan commission of retired General and Flag Officers from every service released a report in which they recommended that Congress repeal 10 USC § 654 in order to “return authority for personnel policy under this law to the Department of Defense.” The commission said little about the implementing regulations.

Members of the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender community have said that when Congress repeals 10 USC § 654, it should simultaneously require the military to establish a standard of non-discrimination with respect to sexual-orientation. The community is correct in noting that without that statutory mandate from Congress, the Pentagon might leave current implementing regulations in place, or might revise them in such a way as to perpetuate discrimination. If the goal is to improve national security while treating gay service members just like everybody else, then Congress should repeal 10 USC § 654 and mandate non-discrimination.

As is the case in so many different issue areas, however, optimal policy sometimes collides with political reality. Consistent with the 2008 General and Flag Officer’s Report, we believe that by repealing 10 USC § 654 and returning authority for personnel policy to the Department of Defense at this time, Congress would enhance national security. Repeal would not require the military to take action, but would enable it to implement forthcoming recommendations from the Pentagon study group. We have confidence that with the repeal of 10 USC § 654, the process will come to a successful completion.  We urge Congressional leadership as well as members of our own community to consider this option seriously.

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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