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Top Defense Officials Seek an End to ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

February 2, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a Senate panel Tuesday they would review how to end the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that bans gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.
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JIM LEHRER: Civilian and uniformed leaders weighed in today on lifting the ban on gays in the U.S. military.

Margaret Warner has our story.

MARGARET WARNER: It was a watershed moment in the U.S. military. At a Senate hearing today, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said it’s time to end the ban on gays in the ranks.

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN, chairman, Joints Chiefs of Staff: Speaking for myself, and myself only, it is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do.

No matter how I look at this issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens. For me, personally, it comes down to integrity, theirs as individuals and ours as an institution.

MARGARET WARNER: The hearing was called after President Obama pledged in last week’s State of the Union address to eliminate the current policy, known as don’t ask, don’t tell.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This year I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.

MARGARET WARNER: Current law forbids the military from asking recruits if they are gay or actively hunting for them in the ranks. But gays who openly declare their status or engage in homosexual conduct are subject to being discharged.

At today’s hearing, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he’s ordering a yearlong study of the practical impact and issues involved if the law is repealed.

ROBERT GATES, U.S. Secretary of Defense: The question before us is not whether the military prepares to make this change, but how we must — how we best prepare it — for it.

We have received our orders from the commander in chief, and we are moving out accordingly. However, we can also take this process only so far, as the ultimate decision rests with you, the Congress.

MARGARET WARNER: Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin said it was high time Congress did so.

SEN. CARL LEVIN, D-Mich.: Ending this discriminatory policy will contribute to our military’s effectiveness. To take just one example, dozens of Arabic and Farsi linguists have been forced out of the military under don’t ask, don’t tell, at a time when our need to understand those languages has never been greater.

An army is not a democracy. It is a meritocracy, where success depends not on who you are, but on how well you do your job.

MARGARET WARNER: But Arizona Republican John McCain said he was dismayed at Gates and Mullen’s attitude.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: I’m deeply disappointed in your statement, Secretary Gates. I was around here in 1993 and was engaged in the debates.

And what we did in 1993 is, we looked at the issue, and we looked at the effect on military, and then we reached a conclusion, and then we enacted into law. Your statement is — the question before us is not whether the military prepares to make this change, but how we best prepare for it.

It would be far more appropriate, I say with great respect, to determine whether repeal of this law is appropriate and what effects it would have on the readiness and effectiveness of the military, before deciding on whether we should repeal the law or not. And, fortunately, it is an act of Congress, and it requires the agreement of Congress in order to repeal it.

MARGARET WARNER: Illinois Democrat Roland Burris insisted that repealing don’t ask, don’t tell was a question of basic fairness, just as it was letting blacks serve with whites decades ago.

SEN. ROLAND BURRIS, D-Ill.: What we need is a policy that allows any individual who has the integrity and the commitment to serve this country to serve this country. And we can go back to President Truman, who took the audacity to integrate the services. At one time, my uncles and members of my race couldn’t even serve in the military. And we have moved to this point where they’re some of the best and brightest that we have had.

MARGARET WARNER: Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions disagreed, and questioned whether the Pentagon review will be impartial, given that the president, Gates and Mullen have already spoken.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS, R-Ala.: If it was a trial, we would perhaps raise the undue command influence defense. And I think we need an open, and objective, and a fair evaluation of this. A lot of things that have been said I would note that are not accurate, at least in my view, at least or misrepresent certain things.

MARGARET WARNER: While the review is under way, Gates said, the Pentagon is also looking at what it can do under existing law to ease enforcement.

ROBERT GATES: We can raise the bar on what constitutes a reliable person on — and on whose word an inquiry can be initiated. Overall, we can reduce the instances in which a service member who is trying to serve the country honorably is outed by a third person with a motive to harm the service member.

MARGARET WARNER: Though Secretary Gates said it wasn’t a question of whether, but how the policy will change, the tone of today’s hearing showed how emotional an issue this remains. And the same range of emotions were expressed by members of the audience.

AUBREY SARVIS, executive director, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network: Good day.

MARGARET WARNER: Aubrey Sarvis is director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which advocates for gay military personnel.

AUBREY SARVIS: We applaud the statements that we heard from Admiral Mullen and Chairman Gates. We look forward to them on this process, this study group. However, I do think that a year is too long.

MARGARET WARNER: But Secretary Gates said this needs to be fully considered.

AUBREY SARVIS: I think it does, and it has been considered for some time. In fact, the military has been studying this for 50 years.

MARGARET WARNER: Elaine Donnelly, head of the Center for Military Readiness and a longtime foe of gays in the military, was dismayed.

ELAINE DONNELLY, Center for Military Readiness: The most disappointing part about the hearing was the way that Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen, admitting their would be problems by repeal of this law, still stated that they are prepared to move ahead anyway.

Admiral Mullen even admitted, we really don’t know how this would work. At one point, it was said that, if there’s a problem with unit cohesion, well, we will just figure out a way to mitigate that.

No, it is not acceptable.

MARGARET WARNER: Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen said, though, they are going to wait to hear what the service members and their families think before they actually act here.

ELAINE DONNELLY: No, they said they are already prepared to move ahead. They support, personally, Admiral Mullen made that clear, and Secretary Gates said he agrees with the president.

So, as Senator McCain said, they have already made up their mind. They are putting the cart before the horse.

MARGARET WARNER: There was also a difference in reaction to Gates’ suggestion that DOD may ease the current discharges of service members who are outed by third parties.

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said it’s perfectly proper for Gates to exercise that discretion, under existing law.

SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND, D-N.Y.: What he’s saying is, right now, they can enforce the policy differently. That will result in less people being dismissed. For example, there are third parties who are outing former partners, outing people they don’t like for retaliation or for inappropriate reasons. And that has to stop. He thinks that’s very immoral and very divisive.

MARGARET WARNER: Elaine Donnelly vehemently disagreed.

ELAINE DONNELLY: To suggest that the circumstances under which it becomes known that a person is homosexual makes a difference is, I think — I don’t think he is carrying out his duty as required by his oath of office. The secretary of defense is required to enforce the law, and the law says that homosexuals are not eligible to be in the armed forces.

MARGARET WARNER: Some 11,000 to 13,000 troops have been discharged since don’t ask, don’t tell was adopted in 1993. But the yearly discharges have dropped in recent times, as the military was stretched fighting two wars.

Pentagon figures released yesterday showed 428 service members were let go in 2009 for being openly gay. That’s down from 619 the year before and 997 back in 1997.

Chairman Levin told reporters after the hearing he would like to see that number close to zero in 2010 and would support a congressionally mandated moratorium on discharges while the Pentagon review is under way.