Gates, Mullen ready to repeal DADT, but GOP ready to fight

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen responds to questions during testimony with Under Secretary of Defense Comptroller Robert Hale, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, before the Senate Armed Services Committee, in Washington, D.C., Feb. 2, 2010.  DOD photo by Cherie Cullen (released)

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen responds to questions during testimony with Under Secretary of Defense Comptroller Robert Hale, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, before the Senate Armed Services Committee, in Washington, D.C., Feb. 2, 2010. DOD photo by Cherie Cullen (released)

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen told a Senate committee Tuesday that they have appointed a high-level working group to report, by the end of 2010, on how the military can adapt should Congress choose to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

“Simultaneous with launching this process,” said Gates, “I have also directed the Department to quickly review the regulations used to implement the current Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell law and, within 45 days, present to me recommended changes to those regulations that, within existing law, will enforce this policy in a more humane and fair manner.”

In remarks that appeared to stun and anger Republican conservatives on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mullen said he personally believes repeal of the military’s policy excluding openly gay service members is “the right thing to do.”

But the Committee’s minority leader John McCain and most of his Republican colleagues made clear they were unhappy to hear Gates and Mullen were preparing to follow orders for repealing the policy, signaling that another bruising political battle in Congress over the issue is almost a certainty.

President Obama promised during his 2008 presidential campaign that he would seek repeal of the policy and he and members of his administration met with Pentagon officials on some number of occasions since taking office to discuss how and when this might be done. Then, last week, the president used the high-profile bully pulpit of his State of the Union address to move the promise into the realm of action.

Gates told the Senate committee that the working group would be headed by DOD General Counsel Jeh Johnson and Commander of the U.S. Army in Europe General Carter Ham.

The group’s mandate, Gates said, is to “thoroughly, objectively, and methodically examine all aspects” associated with “properly implementing a repeal” of the policy. The working group will consider the effects of a repeal on the military on the armed forces, what “policies and regulations” that may have to change, and what impact a change in the law might have, if any, on “military effectiveness,” including and “unit cohesion” recruitment, retention, and “overall performance of the force.”

“My personal belief,” said Mullen, “is that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do.”

“I have served with homosexuals since 1968,” Mullen said, adding that the current policy creates a dissonance with the integrity of the military as an institution.

“Putting individuals in a position where they wonder ‘Is today going to be the day?’ and devaluing them in that regard, just is inconsistent with us as an institution,” he said.

Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) criticized Gates and Mullen for expressing their views in support of repealing the policy, saying it would create “undue command influence” on the working committee to return with a recommendation that conforms to that view.

“I hope you’ll recognize that Congress will have to make the decision and don’t use your power to influence the discussion or reevaluation of the issue,” said Sessions.

Mullen shot back, politely, that “it’s not about command influence, but leadership, and I take that very seriously.”

Repealing the 16-year-old “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy has been a long-standing goal among the nation’s leading LGBT civil rights organizations and reaction to the Gates and Mullen presentation was met with a uniformly positive response.

“We strongly applaud Secretary Gates supporting the President’s view that DADT needs to go,” said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which seeks to provide information and assistance to service members threatened or ejected by the policy. “We also strongly applaud Chairman Mullen who unambiguously personally supported gays and lesbians serving openly. The top military brass of the United States just laid out a roadmap for full repeal.”

Sarvis said his group will “welcome the new direction coming out of the Pentagon over the next 45 days.” He said he expects that could focus on reducing the number of DADT discharges in the near future.

Gates indicated that one key change that could come about through the 45-day recommendations is a change in how the policy is enforced. He said it may be the service could require more than just an allegation from a third-party in order to launch an investigation. Another possible change, he said, could be to require that discharges under the policy be done only by flag officers, such as admirals and generals, rather than lower ranking officers.

“Today is a historic step forward in repealing a shameful law that has harmed the military, discharged thousands of talented and patriotic Americans and prevented thousands more from serving their country,” said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign.

Solmonese also lauded the president for his leadership role.

“We acknowledge and appreciate President Obama’s leadership in bringing the military into line with his ideal,” said Solmonese. “Make no mistake—this would not have happened without his insistence. And we’ll need more of that commitment in the months ahead.”

HRC recently launched a lift-the-ban initiative, called “Voices of Honor,” to organize veterans in key states that may lobby for critical to votes in the House and Senate to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Another group, the Courage Campaign, announced it had collected nearly half a million letters addressed to the president, members of Congress, and the Pentagon, calling for repeal.

“‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ contradicts the military honor code requiring those in uniform to tell the truth,” said Lt. Dan Choi, a spokesperson for the Courage Campaign. A West Point alumnus, Choi is a high-profile Arabic language expert whose discharge is currently pending under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was passed by Congress in 1993 and signed into law by President Bill Clinton and mandates the discharge of openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual service members. Nearly 14,000 service members have been fired for forced out under the law since its implementation in 1994, including 800 people with specialties such as Arabic language expertise, according the SLDN.

SLDN has pointed to a trend boding well for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Discharges for the four services – Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines—under the policy declined in 2009—down a third from the year before. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” discharges totaled 428 in 2009 compared to 619 in 2008, according to data provided by the Department of Defense to Capitol Hill.

“It’s very good news that discharges continue to drop during a time of two wars, particularly in 2009,” said Sarvis. “But it is 428 too many. We need to see the number go to zero and will continue to urge Congress and the White House to pass full repeal in 2010 through the defense authorization bill to end this law once and for all.”

Public opinion has changed, too, with the American people’s increasing support of allowing gays to serve in the military. A Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted in July 2008 found that 75 percent of Americans believe openly lesbian and gay citizens should be able to serve in the U.S. military.

The Gates and Mullen testimony is expected to boost repeal efforts already underway on Capitol Hill. The Military Readiness Enhancement, a bill introduced to lift the ban by Rep. Patrick J. Murphy (D-Pa.), an Iraqi war veteran, now has 187 House Sponsors—just 31votes shy of the 218 votes to assure repeal in the House. The momentum in the Senate, where the Democratic majority recently lost a critical seat to Republicans, is less positive. No bill has yet been introduced there.

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