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DADT Review Chairmen: Repeal Poses ‘Low Risk to Force’

November 30, 2010 at 5:20 PM EST
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The Pentagon's long-awaited review of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy banning gays from serving openly in the armed forces revealed that 70 percent of military personnel surveyed said that changing the law would have little or no impact on readiness. Jim Lehrer talks with study chairmen, Jeh Johnson and Gen. Carter Ham.
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JIM LEHRER: The long-awaited Pentagon study on the effects of ending don’t ask, don’t tell was released today. It concluded there could be initial disruptions from dropping the ban on gays serving openly in the ranks, but there would be no long-lasting problems.

The Pentagon study began 10 months ago. The question: What happens if Congress repeals the policy that forced more than 13,000 personnel to leave the military in the last 17 years? Some 115,000 troops responded to a mailed questionnaire.

Seventy percent said allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would have positive, mixed or no effect. On the other hand, 30 percent predicted negative effects. Among combat troops, 40 percent were opposed to the idea. And that figure climbed to 46 percent among U.S. Marines who answered the survey.

Defense Secretary Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen, favor lifting the ban, as does President Obama.

At a briefing today, Gates addressed the combat unit concerns.

U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT GATES: Part of this is — is a question of — of — of unfamiliarity. Part of it is stereotypes. And part of it is just sort of inherent resistance to change, when — when you don’t what’s on the other side.

And so I think — I think that the — the contrast between the significant levels of concern for those who had — who said they had never served with someone who was gay, as opposed to those who had, is — is an important consideration.

JIM LEHRER: In fact, the report found that 92 percent of troops who have worked with a gay comrade said the experience was good, very good or had no impact on operations.

And, regardless, both Gates and Mullen said everyone in uniform knows orders must be obeyed.

ROBERT GATES: Frankly, if the Congress of the United States repeals this law, this is the will of the American people, and you are the American military, and we will do this, and we will do it right. And we will do everything in our power to mitigate the concerns that you have.

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN, chairman, Joints Chiefs: This is without question a complex social and cultural issue. But at the end of the day, whatever the decision of our elected leaders may be, we in uniform have an obligation to follow orders.

COLIN POWELL, chairman, Former Joints Chiefs: Our perspective is a unique one.

JIM LEHRER: Back in 1993, then Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell had publicly opposed President Clinton’s push to let gays serve openly. That led to don’t ask, don’t tell.

Public opinion was on Powell’s side then, but it has changed markedly since. A Pew Research poll out yesterday found 58 percent of Americans now favor open service by gays. Still, many Republicans point to opposition from the individual commanders of the armed services.

In fact, some lawmakers who said they were waiting for the Pentagon study’s results are now calling for further investigation.

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham appeared on “FOX News Sunday.”

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): There’s no groundswell of opposition to don’t ask, don’t tell coming from our military. This is all politics. I don’t believe there’s anywhere near the votes to repeal don’t ask, don’t tell.

On the Republican side, I think we will be united in the lame-duck. And the study that I would be looking for is asking military members should it be repealed, not how to implement it once you, as a politician, decide to repeal it.

JIM LEHRER: The House has already passed repeal, while a similar measure has so far been blocked in the Senate.

Secretary Gates warned today against inaction, but he also said the military will need time to adjust.

ROBERT GATES: Those that choose not to act legislatively are rolling the dice that this policy will not be abruptly overturned by the courts.

Nonetheless, I believe that it would be unwise to push ahead with full implementation of repeal before more can be done to prepare the force, in particular those ground combat specialties and units for what could be a disruptive and disorienting change.

JIM LEHRER: Senate Democrats have pledged to bring up repeal again in the current lame-duck session. The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold hearings this week on the Pentagon report. But, if the full Senate does not act, the issue will likely die when Republicans regain control of the House next year.

And with us now are the two chairmen of the don’t ask, don’t tell study group, Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon’s general counsel, and General Carter Ham. He’s the commanding general of U.S. Army forces in Europe.

General, President Obama said late today that your study proves that don’t ask, don’t tell can be implemented responsibly. Do you agree with that?

GEN. CARTER HAM, co-chairman, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Study: I do. I think we can. If the law changes, I think the uniformed military can execute and implement the change to the law with low risk to the force.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

JEH JOHNSON, co-chairman, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Study: Yes, sir, I do.

I think that our study, which was the most comprehensive engagement of the force on any personnel-related issue, demonstrates that most service members simply don’t regard this as an issue at this point. And many actually see positive effects of — of repeal in terms of unit cohesion and the ability to work together.

JIM LEHRER: General, the — the study, your study, comes up just the opposite of where the military leadership has been for years, including some of the leaders now.

The other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have spoken out on this. Why the difference between how the troops feel and the how the leaders feel?

GEN. CARTER HAM: I think one of the things that was interesting in our review is, as far as we can tell, this was the first really analytically rigorous, representative, and objective assessment of the attitudes of the force with regard to don’t ask, don’t tell.

So, rather than having anecdotal information, we really wanted analytically rigorous information. And we think we have that.

JIM LEHRER: But — well, I would ask you, Mr. Johnson, why do — the generals through the years have been opposed to this, and how does your study — does your study include the high-ranking officers, or is it mostly troops, enlisted men, enlisted — enlisted personnel, or what?

JEH JOHNSON: The study included all grades.

I would say, in response to your question, that we heard from a number of generals and admirals that they were prepared to follow whatever the will of the Congress and the president was. And the basic message was, if the law is repealed, we are prepared to lead. Just give us the tools, give us the education and training tools to do that.

We heard that a lot.

JIM LEHRER: What about Senator Graham’s question you all didn’t ask the troops in your study if it should be repealed? Why didn’t you?

JEH JOHNSON: We don’t conduct referenda or polls within the military about military policy. We don’t poll the force about whether we should send additional troops to Afghanistan, for example, or go into Iraq.

We did ask very specific questions to test the effect of repeal on unit cohesion and the like. And our study was comprehensive enough that we in effect got an answer to the question of, can we do this?

And the survey results reveal a significant majority of the force believes that we can do this.

JIM LEHRER: Can we do this is not the same question, though, as should we do this, is it, General?

GEN. CARTER HAM: No. It’s very clearly different questions.

But, as a career soldier, I think that the appropriate question to us in uniform is, what would be the effect, what would be the impact of repeal, should it occur, and how would you implement it?

We are hopeful that our study will inform the discussion of, should the law be repealed? But it is Congress’ responsibility, in my view, to decide should. We have to decide how.

JIM LEHRER: Well, based on your experience with the study group, do you think it should be repealed?

GEN. CARTER HAM: That’s not a question for us in the military. I am firmly convinced that it can be repealed.

JIM LEHRER: Do you believe it should be, Mr. Johnson?

JEH JOHNSON: Well, I’m going to be the general counsel of the Defense Department for a moment here and note what Secretary Gates said this afternoon, which is that there is clearly increased activity on this issue in the courts.

We had an experience in October where a judge told us, literally overnight, to stop enforcing this policy, which is not the way to make a major personnel policy change within the military in a force as big as ours.

And, so, what Secretary Gates is saying to us is that we can do this in an orderly fashion, consistent with our recommendations, and have the Congress bring about repeal in that way, or we can do this in a very abrupt way, over which we have very little control.

And we saw a taste of that last month, in October, when we were enjoined from enforcing the policy. So, from my legal point of view, I think that the better course is to do this in an orderly fashion, and not deal with — have to face whatever the courts are going to hand us.

JIM LEHRER: You said there will be some initial disruptions. What kind of disruptions, General?

GEN. CARTER HAM: I think, if the law is repealed and the policy changes, some of our formations — because it will be something new. It will be a new dynamic.

So, for example, in a small unit, a service member may reveal their sexual orientation, to be gay or lesbian, whereas, today, they would conceal that. That may cause others in the unit to be uncomfortable. We clearly recognize that some number of service members have strongly held religious and moral views about homosexuality.

So, those kinds of disruptions, I think, are likely to occur in the near term.

JIM LEHRER: And your study group said that education and training can do this. What kind of — can get by these kinds of disruptions. What kind of education there? How do you educate and train people about this?

JEH JOHNSON: Well, there’s a basic education about where gays and lesbians fit in to the force if they are allowed to serve openly.

And one of the underlying themes that we’re recommending for education and training is treatment of all service members on a fair and equal basis. Everyone should be treated the same, no preferential treatment for gay and lesbian service members.

And in our engagements with them, we heard much the same thing: “We don’t want special treatment. We don’t want to be treated any different from anybody else. Just allow us to live by the same rules.”

JIM LEHRER: No different — no different living quarters, no different — any different rules of any kind at all for them?

JEH JOHNSON: No different living quarters, no special considerations. Just allow us to live by the same rules as everybody else.

If somebody — another service member makes a reference to his family or his significant other or what he’s doing for the weekend, a gay and lesbian service member should be allowed to do the same.

JIM LEHRER: General, put on your combat hat. You have served in combat more than once. And the combat soldiers, Marines, were the most opposed to this.

What’s your reading of that? What do you think is the reason for this?

GEN. CARTER HAM: I think there are a number of factors that are at play.

As the secretary of defense indicated, it’s also the segment of the force that probably has the less — the least actual experience of serving alongside gay and lesbian service members. And we found a distinct difference in the attitudes of service members who had that experience and those who have not.

JIM LEHRER: And the ones who — and they knew they were serving with gays and lesbians, and they had — they had a better experience than those who had no experience; is that what you’re…

GEN. CARTER HAM: In general, that’s correct. And we focused specifically on Marine and Army combat arms units in combat, and asked questions about, you know, did you know someone in your unit who was gay? And what effect did that have on unit performance?

And they actually — the — those who had that actual experience report that their unit performance was quite good.

JIM LEHRER: Even those that — that had combat assignments, like Marines, say, on the — or infantry — infantry troops in the Army, they had reluctance about changing the policy, but they hadn’t had a negative experience?

GEN. CARTER HAM: Those who had an actual experience…

JIM LEHRER: Actual experience.

GEN. CARTER HAM: … particularly in combat, of serving in an organization with someone in their unit that they knew who was gay, their unit performance was quite good.

There is a very real difference between those assessments and service members in similar circumstance who have not served with someone that they knew to be gay.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, Mr. Johnson, in a word, any doubt in your mind that this is going to eventually happen, and it will be done successfully?

JEH JOHNSON: Well, I think that, one way or another, we’re seeing the twilight of this law, whether it’s through the Congress or the courts. And we would obviously prefer that it be done in an orderly way with the Congress, with the help of the Congress.

JIM LEHRER: All right, gentlemen, thank you both very much.

GEN. CARTER HAM: Thank you.