DADT reports: Study or stall?

Robert Gates

Robert Gates

Second of two parts (Part I)

A “study” in the nation’s capitol is special kind of political capital. It can buy rationale with which to justify a change in policy or it can buy time to stop a change.

President Obama and many in Congress appear ready for change in the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy of excluding gays and, in response, Department of Defense Secretary Robert Gates has launched two studies. The question is: Is DOD buying rationale or time?

The answer is unclear. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said Monday, March 15, that “the Administration has been ambiguous” about timing.

And, “that ambiguity,” he said, “has allowed some to interpret Secretary Gates’ argument for a delay in implementation as a delay in adopting the legislation.”

Frank made his remarks in a press release to clarify what he said he meant to say during an interview with The Advocate on Friday. During that interview, according to reporter Kerry Eleveld, Frank “intimated that the White House did not want to see ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ repealed this year.” (In his clarification, Frank stated, “I did not mean to imply that the Administration has opposed moving forward with the repeal….”)

This year matters because no political observers expect the Democratic majority to be strengthened in the mid-term elections, in November.

The House is not the problem. Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Penn.) is lead sponsor of a DADT repeal bill (H.R. 1283) in the House, joined by 190 co-sponsors. That’s just 27 votes shy of a simple majority of the House’s 435 members.

The Senate is the problem. Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) introduced S. 3065 on March 3, the Senate’s first ever bill seeking to repeal DADT. On board as co-sponsors are Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and 22 Senate colleagues. The co-sponsors include Roland Burris and Dick Durbin of Illinois, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein of California, and John Kerry of Massachusetts. But 24 votes is not even halfway to a simple majority in the Senate, and it’s a long climb to the 60 necessary to force a floor vote on the measure against a filibuster.

But things are moving in both chambers. The House Armed Services Committee has had a hearing on its bill. The Senate Armed Services Committee is having one this week (March 18). Retired General John Sheehan, of the Marines, will testify against repeal; two service members discharged under the policy will testify for repeal.

But at the Pentagon, only Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen has stated forthrightly that he believes repeal of the policy is the “right thing to do.” The other Joint Chiefs have expressed opposition to the idea, suggesting that it’s an idea whose time has not yet come or that it’s just a bad time to make such a change.

Secretary Gates’ remarks have been chosen carefully: He has said nothing on the record in support of or opposed to repealing DADT.

“We have received our orders from the commander in chief and we are moving out accordingly,” Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee during a special presentation February 2. But he’s also made clear that he believes any change to the policy must come from Congress. So far, “moving out accordingly” on the president’s directive has amounted to two studies.

One study, which is due within 45 days of February 2, is to determine what the Defense Department can do “within the existing law” to enforce the existing policy “in a more humane and fair manner.” The other, which is due December 1, is to assess the impact of repealing the policy and how the department could go about implementing that change.

But on the first, shorter-term study, Gates also acknowledged that his General Counsel had conducted a “preliminary review” of the matter last year, concluding that the department has “a degree of latitude within the existing law to change our internal procedures in a manner that is more appropriate and fair.” And yet, now, Gates is asking the Department for “a final detailed assessment of this proposal before proceeding.”

And on the longer study, Gates directed his working group to consider recommending “further study.”

A group of military scholars and experts signed onto a statement March 2 expressing their concern that members of Congress are poised to put too much reliance on the Gates reports. They question whether more study is really necessary.

“Civilian leaders must, of course, consult with the military before making decisions that affect the men and women who serve in our armed forces and which might affect the national security of the United States,” said the statement. “…We are concerned, however, that political leaders seem poised to accept advice provided by the Service Chiefs uncritically, advice which does not seem to take into account considerable research that has emerged over the past fifty years about the impact of openly gay service on military effectiveness.”

The statement says the experts are “perplexed” by the DOD’s claim that it has “insufficient data” to assess the impact of allowing openly gay service members in the military. Among those signing the statement were Retired Brigadier General Hugh Aitken, Retired West Point Academy Lt. Colonel Allen Bishop, and the former director of Command and Leadership Studies at the U.S. Army War College.

Aubrey Sarvis, head of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, took issue with the DADT working group’s plan to survey troops to see how they feel about changing the policy, saying it is “unprecedented, and extraordinary.”

“In fact, it runs counter to how our military for 200 years has functioned: Debate or opinion-gathering about a coming change has never been how the military operates,” said Sarvis.

Whatever Gates’ level of support for repealing the policy, those who want to repeal it are undaunted. Rep. Murphy stated emphatically, at a press conference March 4, that “we will finally repeal” the law this year. And Rep. Frank, in an essay for the Huffington Post last month, said “the way is now clear for both houses of Congress to vote in this year’s Defense Authorization to remove one of the few explicit endorsements of bigotry in our country.”

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