Service members threatened with potential discharge under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” may soon be able to breathe easier after Pentagon lawyers complete their assessment on finding a “more humane” way to implement the law.
The assessment, due for completion this week, is taking place because Defense Secretary Robert Gates tasked the Pentagon’s Office of the General Counsel to review the regulations for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to see if the Department of Defense could implement the law in a fairer manner.
After asking last year for a preliminary assessment for what he called a potentially “more humane” policy, Gates announced before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 2 the review would be complete in 45 days. Earlier this month, Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon’s top lawyer, said during congressional testimony the assessment would be finished on or around March 19.
But what these final changes will entail is unknown because information about them isn’t public. The Defense Department didn’t respond to DC Agenda’s request to comment on the new regulations.
Also unknown is the timing for when the Pentagon will unveil these changes, as well as how long it would take for Gates to implement them once he receives the recommendations.
Repeal advocates say they’re unsure what Pentagon lawyers will ultimately produce, but have issued recommendations for changing the application of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” under the current statute.
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said his organization provided the Defense Department in July with a list of possible changes that could be made.
Among these changes are mandating evidence when a possible violation of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” comes from a fellow service member and not a civilian; eliminating anonymous tips as the basis for the start of an inquiry; and requiring that alleged homosexual conduct on which any discharge is based occurs after a service member joined the armed forces.
“And actually, Secretary Gates and Adm. Mullen referred to all six of those at the Feb. 2 hearing, but we don’t have any concrete intelligence as to what Mr. Johnson may or may not be recommending to the secretary,” Sarvis said.
During that testimony, Gates raised some possibilities on what the changes could entail. He said the Pentagon could raise the level of the officer who initiates or conducts inquiries, as well as what constitutes a credible source to start an investigation.
Gates also told lawmakers the Defense Department can “reduce the instances” in which a service member is outed by a third party under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said the actual benefit to gay soldiers of eliminating third-party outings is unknown because reliable information on why service members are expelled isn’t available.
“Anybody can sort of venture to guess based on their experience and anecdotal evidence,” he said. “But it’s really hard to do that with authority or credibility because we don’t have any statistics on how many discharges are the result of self-initiated outings, how many are the results of third-party outings and how many are the result of behavior being discovered.”
Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, a think-tank on gays in the military at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said if such changes are enacted, it would eliminate important problems, but still wouldn’t address other issues.
“One is you’re not going to be able to eliminate all discharges,” he said. “Two, as long as the law is on the books, you’ll still have the sword hanging over gay people’s heads, and it’s that sword that makes it difficult for them to do their job.”
Belkin said new regulations also won’t change how “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” damages the military “symbolically and reputationally” simply by being on the books.
During the Feb. 2 hearing, Gates said as part of these changes the Pentagon would “devise new rules and procedures” in light of the 2008 Ninth Court of Appeals ruling in Witt v. Air Force, which challenged the constitutionality of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
The decision, which was construed to only apply to the plaintiff, determined the Pentagon needed to prove lesbian Maj. Margaret Witt’s sexual orientation was a detriment to unit cohesion in order to discharge her from the Air Force.
Applying the heightened Witt standard on a national basis was one of SLDN’s recommendations for a change under current law. Sarvis said such an application would help the Defense Department “create uniformity” in all “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” discharge cases.
But Belkin said he doesn’t think the Pentagon would apply the Witt standard on a national basis because it would be too big of a change.
“I would doubt that the Defense Department would take a judicial ruling that applies to one circuit and use regulation to expand its scope to the whole military,” he said. “I think that’s too big of a step for a regulatory tweak.”
Whatever changes the Pentagon makes, advocates maintain legislative repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is the only way to properly address the law.
If the Pentagon implements the changes SLDN recommended, Sarvis said it would “go a long ways,” but “wouldn’t diminish the need for Congress to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’”
Sarvis said legislative repeal is particularly needed so any conservative administration following President Obama couldn’t reverse the changes made under the existing statute.
“The next secretary and a new administration could come along and make revisions that he or she may feel they have authority for under the current statute,” he said. “That’s why I go back to changes to the regulations are not a substitute for repealing the statute.”