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Pace Remarks Renew ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Debate

March 16, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: Earlier this week, Joint Chiefs Chairman Peter Pace provoked controversy in a taped interview with the Chicago Tribune. He was defending the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy toward gays in their ranks.

PETER PACE, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs: I believe that homosexual acts between individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts. I do not believe that the Armed Forces of the United States are well-served by saying through our policies, “It’s OK to be immoral in any way.”

MARGARET WARNER: Yet just two weeks earlier, Democratic Congressman Martin Meehan introduced a bill to abolish the policy and let gays serve openly.

REP. MARTY MEEHAN (D), Massachusetts: Today, I am reintroducing the Military Readiness Enhancement Act. It will be an uphill climb.

MARGARET WARNER: Those strikingly different views dramatized the deep divisions that persist over the Pentagon’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. For 14 years, gay men and lesbians have been able to serve in the U.S. military if they keep their sexual orientation private.

One academic study estimates there may be as many as 60,000 gays serving. The policy was crafted in 1993 by then-President Bill Clinton, as a compromise with top Pentagon brass and congressional conservatives who wanted to keep a blanket ban on gay servicemembers.

BILL CLINTON, Former President of the United States: Servicemen and women will be judged based on their conduct, not their sexual orientation.

MARGARET WARNER: Recruits are no longer asked their sexual orientation. But nearly 11,000 servicemen and women have been thrown out after disclosing it or having it discovered.

The discharges hit a peak of more than 1,200 in 2001, but have been declining since then, to just over 720 in 2005. Now, with the Armed Forces stretched thin, there are renewed calls to abolish the policy altogether.

Former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. John Shalikashvili, in a January opinion piece in the New York Times, said he had, quote, “second thoughts on gays in the military.”

“I now believe that, if gay men and lesbians served openly in the United States military,” he wrote, “they would not undermine the efficacy of the Armed Forces.”

Congressman Meehan argued last month that the policy itself is actually undermining the military by robbing it of good people.

REP. MARTIN MEEHAN: While we struggle to find and keep soldiers we need, to the point of lowering our recruiting standards and allowing people with criminal records to enter our Armed Forces, we’re actually turning away highly effective people because of a policy of discrimination. This is a matter of our own national security interest.

MARGARET WARNER: Beside him was Marine Staff Sergeant Eric Alva, badly wounded in the Iraq invasion four years ago. He was awarded the Purple Heart by President Bush and then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

FORMER STAFF SGT. ERIC ALVA, U.S. Marine Corps: There are people like myself among the ranks of men and women of the Armed Forces that have served to protect this nation, but I ask that you give them the chance to serve openly.

MARGARET WARNER: The current secretary of defense, Robert Gates, was asked after Pace’s remarks this week for his personal opinion of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

ROBERT GATES, Secretary of Defense: I think personal opinion really doesn’t have a place here. What’s important is that we have a law, a statute, that governs “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” That’s the policy of this department, and it’s my responsibility to execute that policy as effectively as we can.

MARGARET WARNER: Though more than 100 members of Congress have co-sponsored legislation to overturn the policy, no hearings have been scheduled.

The policy's current application

Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis
U.S. Army, retired
[T]he reality is, yes, a lot of people have been discharged. We are a very discriminatory organization. We discriminate against a whole host of issues.

MARGARET WARNER: So how well is the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy working after 14 years? We hear from retired Army Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis. He was an adviser to the Pentagon task force that formulated the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in 1993. He's now a consultant to the Army.

And Former Army Capt. Sharon Alexander, she served in active duty from 1993 to '98, and in the National Guard and Reserves until 2003. She's now deputy director for policy at Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which advocates repealing the policy.

Welcome to you both.

Col. Maginnis, is this policy working successfully for the military? That is, is it meeting the standards that you intended, you all intended when you crafted it 14 years ago?

LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS, U.S. Army (Ret.): Well, Margaret, the intent was to deny access for people who are openly gay to serve in the military. Is it working? It has certainly discharged almost 11,000 people since '94.

There are some issues with it that I personally had, because I think it's a double pretense. I think homosexuals have to pretend they aren't homosexual, and the military has to pretend it doesn't care that homosexuals serve. But that's the politics.

But the reality is, yes, a lot of people have been discharged. We are a very discriminatory organization. We discriminate against a whole host of issues. And it was the experts in '93 that compelled the Democratic Congress that, look, this is a category of people that you don't want to assume will not harm readiness. And, in fact, they bought that.

MARGARET WARNER: And you and your organization do not think that this is a successful policy for the military, from its point of view, why not?

CAPT. SHARON ALEXANDER, Formerly of U.S. Army: We think this is not a good public policy for a number of reasons. First of all, in the time of war, when we need all good people who are willing to serve serving, this is a policy that, like Col. Maginnis says, has resulted in the discharge of over 11,000 capable, skilled, trained personnel from our Armed Forces.

Among those 11,000 were 55 speakers of Arabic, in a time when we are fighting a war in Iraq and are badly in need of Arabic translators. It's a bad policy also because it does, indeed, force people to lie as a condition of serving our country.

We think that a great threat to unit cohesion is any law that says, in order to serve, you have to lie about who you are to be here.

Valid reason for discharge?

Army Capt. Sharon Alexander
Servicemembers Legal Defense Fund
Every study that's been commissioned by the Pentagon to study the question of whether openly gay people in the ranks contribute negatively to unit cohesion has come to the conclusion that they do not.

MARGARET WARNER: What about that point, Colonel, that, at a time when the Army is stretching to meet its recruitment goals, has, indeed, lowered its standards on aptitude tests, on criminal records, does it make sense now to be essentially putting off-limits anyone who happens to be gay and doesn't want to hide it?

LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS: Yes, well, obviously that is -- as Sharon indicates, that is a decision Congress has to make. Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution is very clear. They make the rules and regulations. They have to revisit that, and apparently they aren't willing to do that through hearings.

But as far as denying access to a particular category of people, there's no constitutional right to serve. And it says in the law. But the fact is, we have to regulate by category. And we looked, at the time in '93, at unit cohesion and we looked at unit readiness.

The sergeant general came back and said, as a category, this is a high-risk group. And then we asked those that are experts in group psychology, and they said, look, cohesion is going to be damaged because it's a polarizing category of people.

So Congress, you know, bought that explanation. And as a result, we have what we have today.

MARGARET WARNER: What about that argument, that being homosexual isn't like -- I mean, other things people are discharged for are, say, being overweight, that it's not in that category, that it is something that is polarizing and cultural, social, even religious terms.

CAPT. SHARON ALEXANDER: Yes, I don't buy that, and I don't think honestly people within the Pentagon really buy that. Every study that's been commissioned by the Pentagon to study the question of whether openly gay people in the ranks contribute negatively to unit cohesion has come to the conclusion that they do not.

Our experience with our servicemembers who we serve through our legal services program indicates to us that many of them are serving openly and, in fact, are not causing any detriment to unit cohesion. We think that the threat to unit cohesion is, again, any law that distinguishes among people in a way to make an entire class of people have to lie as a condition of serving their country.

Unit cohesion and the policy

Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis
U.S. Army, retired
It has nothing to do about motherhood and apple pie; it has everything to do about how I respect that person, how I work with that person, how I live with that person.

MARGARET WARNER: But in your own personal experience when you were serving, what did you find then?

CAPT. SHARON ALEXANDER: I found this to be a very difficult policy to implement. As a young platoon leader, I did lose a soldier to this policy, and I found it very disruptive, very difficult, much more disruptive than it would have been if there had just been a gay person in the platoon like anybody else.

The thing about military people and the thing about the military experience is that people come from diverse backgrounds, diverse philosophical perspectives, diverse religions.

But unit cohesion is not based on shared philosophy or shared religion. Unit cohesion is based on a commitment to a mission that lies ahead of you, that transcends, if you will, our individual differences. That's one of the great beauties of serving in the United States military.

And I think that this idea that people won't be able to serve with somebody with whom they have religious differences vastly diminishes the capacity for servicemembers to be tolerant of one another and to respect each other's differences. I think that evangelical Christians who believe homosexuality is wrong are perfectly capable of serving alongside gay people, and in many cases are doing so today.

LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS: Now, my concern is really -- and I've been to Iraq a number of times, talking to soldiers about, how do you build trust and confidence, how do you bond? You know, are these privacy issues a problem? You know, when you look at all of these, and you consider...

MARGARET WARNER: What do you mean "privacy"?

LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS: Privacy issues, that there isn't any, basically. In any situation, in a forward operating base, and especially now that we're going and doing a counterinsurgency and a security mission in Baghdad, very different.

But the point is that you are really tearing apart the trust and confidence. The only reason I go out there and fight is because I'm fighting for the guy on my left or the girl on my right. It has nothing to do about motherhood and apple pie; it has everything to do about how I respect that person, how I work with that person, how I live with that person.

That's how you build that bond. And that bond is so absolutely critical, Margaret, to how our Army fights. And it was a scientist...

LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS: She talks about studies. It was a scientist that came back and said to the Congress and to us, look, we don't need these radical differences in our bonding techniques because that's going to hurt us. And so, you know, we bought into that.

Policy's relevance

Army Capt. Sharon Alexander
Servicemembers Legal Defense Fund
We talk to clients every day in the 18- to 25-year-old category who are over there in combat, fighting, and they are, in many cases, open to their colleague without incident.

MARGARET WARNER: But could I just ask you, just to ask, as Captain Alexander discussed in her own personal experience, do you have personal experience that tells you either that the current policy is a good idea, that it's maintained unit cohesion somewhere where otherwise it could have been ripped asunder?

Have you talked to people who have actually told you that, if they knew their fellow platoon members were gay, that would undermine...

LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS: Well, as Sharon knows, most people that are homosexual, if they want to continue service, they aren't going to announce that to the world. They're going to be discharged in most cases. So you don't know.

You know, you anecdotally hear cases, "Well, I knew that." But you really didn't know that, because it's the commander's obligation to dismiss them based on the law and the regulation.

So, you know, you get in situations where you get to know this person. If you suspect something, then, you know, you work it out. But if it's a sexual proclivity -- you know, as a father of teenagers, I have a tough time keeping teenagers, you know, apart from one another, you know, opposite sexes. When you throw in that sexual drive into a forced intimate situation, it's hard to control.

We have a war going on. We don't need to be battling one another, you know, when we're talking same-sex attraction.

CAPT. SHARON ALEXANDER: I think that, again, vastly underestimates professionalism of the men and women who are fighting this war for us today. I think, in Col. Maginnis' generation and in my generation, it's true that most gay people in the military did not serve openly. They stayed very much in the closet.

That's not true today. We talk to clients every day in the 18- to 25-year-old category who are over there in combat, fighting, and they are, in many cases, open to their colleague without incident. They are accepted, even by people who might have philosophical or religious beliefs against homosexuality...

MARGARET WARNER: So are you saying that the way this policy is enforced is fairly arbitrary?

CAPT. SHARON ALEXANDER: It's very arbitrary. Many people are serving openly gay under this policy. Discharges tend to happen as a result of retaliation. Maybe someone's mad at somebody, and this is a great tool to hurt someone.

MARGARET WARNER: And very briefly, Colonel, is it the case, though, that the number of forced discharges has dropped fairly significantly in the last five years since we've been engaged in that war in Iraq? Isn't it almost...

LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS: Yes, it's a sine wave, and it has come down. And, in fact...

MARGARET WARNER: You think the Army -- I guess what I'm asking, is the Army tacitly now allowing openly gay members to serve because of the need...

LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS: You're not going to find a commander to say that, Margaret. It may be happening out there, but by and large commanders are focused on doing what they have to do as commanders, incredibly tough mission.

Let's not put something else on their shoulders to deal with that they shouldn't have to in a time of war.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Col. Maginnis, Capt. Alexander, thank you.