Republican senators during a hearing on Thursday attempted to undermine a recently released Pentagon report on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal by questioning the study’s conclusions and methodology.
The GOP senators raised their concerns and criticism during a hearing that marked the first day of two days of scheduled testimony on the Pentagon working group’s report on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which was made public earlier this week by the Defense Department.
Pentagon leaders — as well as LGBT advocates — in turn rebuked or attempted to alleviate these concerns from Republican senators.
Testimony came from Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen as well as both co-chairs of the Pentagon working group report: Pentagon general counsel Jeh Johnson and Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Army Europe.
The witnesses endorsed the Pentagon report and its findings pave a way for the Defense Department to institute a end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” if Congress repeals the statute. The defense officials urged senators to take action to repeal the law.
In his opening statement, Mullen said the Pentagon report backs his earlier testimony from February in which he said he personally believes gays should serve openly in the U.S. military.
“I am convinced that repeal of the law governing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is the right thing to do,” Mullen said. “Back in February, when I testified to this sentiment, I also said that I believed the men and women of the armed forces could accomodate such a change. But I did not know it for a fact. Now, I do.”
But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leading opponent of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal in the Senate, attempted to poke holes in the report during the hearing.
One of the Arizona senator’s main concerns was that the surveys sent out to 400,000 service members as part of the report – which were returned by about 115,000 respondents – didn’t ask troops whether they favored a change in “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and instead focused on an implementation of repeal.
“What I want to know and what it is that Congress is going to be determining is not can our armed forces implement a repeal of this law, but whether the law should be repealed,” McCain said. “Unfortunately, that key issue was not the focus of the study.”
McCain also argued that the limited number of troops who responded to the survey — around 28 percent — brings the results into question.
“That’s almost six percent of the force at large,” McCain said. “I find it hard to view that that is a fully representative sample set.”
Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) also expressed concerns about the return rate on the surveys and recalled troops’ reaction in May when Congress had taken the initial steps to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” before the questionnaire was distributed.
“Halfway through the process when we took certain actions, they felt it was a done deal and as a result they didn’t participate in the survey,” Brown said. “Twenty-eight percent does not seem like a high number of participation.”
But Ham said the 28 percent response rate is well within the norm for previous surveys for military personnel.
“I’m comfortable that the response rate overall is within norms and probably more importantly, senator, that each category that can be analyzed has a statistically significant number of responses,” Ham said.
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, later rebuked the McCain’s point that service members should be polled on whether they want to repeal ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“That would be a dangerous precedent to set irrespective of how you feel about ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” Sarvis said. “That has never been done on any major personnel policy initiative that the military has undertaken. Never.”
Sarvis also pushed back on claims that 28 percent response rate on the survey was insufficient as he maintained the number represented “an extraordinary response rate.”
“As a matter of fact, I think … most pollsters would gratified by such a response,” Sarvis said.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said during her questioning that although the direct question isn’t directly asked, the survey does have information on whether troops would support a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“Given the extensive feedback that the authors of the report and the task force did and that they received from tens of thousands of service members in the forms of survey responses, e-mails, and town hall meetings, the report, in fact, does convey a sense of what service members think about repeal of the law, even if a direct question was not included in the survey,” Collins said.
The Maine senator voted for a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal amendment when it before the committee in May, but angered many LGBT advocates in September when she voted with the Republican caucus to prevent “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” legislation from coming to the Senate floor over what she said was a lack of a fair amendment process.
While attacking the methodology of the report, McCain also used information in the study in his effort to derail legislative efforts to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
The Arizona senator noted the survey accompanying the report found that between 40 to 60 percent of service members serving in the Marine Corps as well as combat arms specialties predicted a negative impact of repeal.
“I remain concerned as I have in the past — and is demonstrated in this study — that the closer we get to service members in combat, the more we encounter concerns about whether ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ should be repealed and what impact that would have on the ability of these units to perform their mission,” McCain said.
During the hearing, Gates predicted this opposition could be overcome. The defense secretary said with “proper time for preparation, for training” concerns among these groups would be mitigated.
For the example of Marines in combat arms specialties, Gates noted that many of these service members are under 25 years old.
“Most of them have never served with women either, and so they’ve had a very focused, very limited experience in the military … but I think that with time and adequate preparation, we can mitigate their concerns,” Gates said.
McCain also noted that 12.6 percent of survey responders — which he said translates into 264,600 service members — said they’d leave the U.S. military sooner than they had planned if “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is repealed.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) also expressed concerns about the effect of lifting “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on what he said is historic levels of retention in the U.S. military as he said, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
“Right now, we have probably the best retention and recruitment percentages, over 100 percent, in everywhere except, I think, just the Army guard, and there’s other reasons for that,” Inhofe said. “There is some concern to me about how this would affect that.”
Gates said the experience of foreign militaries who have lifted their gay ban has been that number of people who actually quite the force was “far smaller” than those who threatened to leave.
“As far as the force as a whole, I don’t think any of us expect that the numbers would be anything like what the survey suggests,” Gates said.
Gates also noted the service members couldn’t immediately leave the armed services because they’re contractually obligated to continue to duration of their service.
At the start of the hearing, when Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said each committee member would have five minutes for questioning, McCain objected and said if only that time was allowed, another hearing would be necessary.
Gates said he could extend the time he could testify before the committee for another half-hour, and Levin extended the questioning time for senator to six minutes each.
Notably, after complaining that five minutes wasn’t enough time to question Gates, McCain used some of his time to question Pentagon leaders about the impact of the leaked information regarding U.S. foreign policy on Wikileaks.
Some of the strongest support for repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” during the hearing came from conservative Democrats who are known for often riling their party’s base, including Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).
“To me, the issue seems to be not whether to allow gays to serve in the military, but whether to allow them to serve openly,” Nelson said. “Permitting them to serve, but not openly, undermines the basic values of the military: honesty, integrity and trust. When that’s undermined anywhere, it’s undermined everywhere.”
Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who has heretofore opposed repeal efforts, praised the report and disputed assertations from Republicans that the study and survey wasn’t useful as a guide to repeal.
“It’s a 345-page report, 115,000 respondents, and, most importantly, this was done without politicizing men and women in uniform, which is vitally important in our society,” Webb said. “I would like to say that this report is probably the most crucial piece of information that we have in terms of really, objectively moving forward in order to address the law.”