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Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Timing of Repeal Push Among Sticking Points

December 2, 2010 at 4:13 PM EST
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Defense Secretary Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday that the ban on gays serving openly in the military should be reversed. Jim Lehrer talks to independent Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who supports a repeal, and Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, who opposes it.
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JIM LEHRER: Two days after the Pentagon report on don’t ask, don’t tell, top defense officials make the case for change to the U.S. Senate.

Pentagon leaders at today’s Senate hearing stood firm in their view that don’t ask, don’t tell should be reversed.

Admiral Mike Mullen is chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN, chairman, Joints Chiefs: We’re an institution that values integrity and then asks other people to join us, work with us, fight with us, die with us, and lie about who they are the whole time they’re in the military. That’s what just doesn’t make any sense to me.

JIM LEHRER: Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates came armed with findings that most troops see no ill effects from ending the ban on gays serving openly in the ranks.

But they faced a nearly united Republican front of opposition, led by Arizona’s John McCain.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-Ariz.): You have said that you conclude that those concerns of members — of service members about deterioration of military unit cohesion are — quote — “exaggerated.”

How are they exaggerated?

U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT GATES: Well, I don’t remember using the word exaggerated, because I take those concerns very seriously.

JIM LEHRER: McCain had said any action on repeal should await the survey results, but, today, he argued it asked the wrong questions, not how should repeal be handled, but whether it should happen at all.

He pointed to nearly 60 percent of combat troops who said allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would harm the force, and more than 12 percent said they would leave the armed forces in that case.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: If they left the — this 12.6 percent of the military left earlier, that translates into 264,600 men and women who would leave the military earlier than they had planned.

Do you think that’s a good idea, to replace 265,000 troops across the force in time of war, that we should be undertaking that challenge at this time?

ROBERT GATES: They can’t just up and leave. They have enlistment contracts. The officers have contracts in terms of the amount of time they have to serve. And so it isn’t like they can just say, well, I’m out of here.

JIM LEHRER: Delaware Democrat Chris Coons cited the example of racially integrating the armed forces. It was implemented, in part, during the Korean War, despite overwhelming opposition from the military and the public.

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D-Del.): Are there any other parallels or lessons to be learned from racial integration and from a very different period?

ROBERT GATES: These social changes in the military have — have not been particularly easy. The reality is, we had serious racial problems within the services at least through the end of the Vietnam War.

It’s been a number of years since we have admitted women into the armed forces, and the reality is, as everybody on this committee knows, we have a continuing problem with sexual assault. So, these are human beings we’re dealing with. And — and I think the report is honest in saying that there will be some disruption.

JIM LEHRER: The defense officials warned of still greater disruption if the federal courts beat Congress to the punch. There have already been some rulings invalidating don’t ask, don’t tell.

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN: I worry that unpredictable actions in the court could strike down the law at any time, precluding the orderly implementation plan we believe is necessary to mitigate risk. I also have no expectation that challenges to our national security are going to diminish in the near future, such that a more convenient time will appear.

JIM LEHRER: But Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker insisted again that what really matters is what the troops think. He pressed the point that they should be asked if they want the policy repealed.

SEN. ROGER WICKER (R-Miss.): On the one hand, the president has made a decision. Therefore, we didn’t take a full survey of military attitudes.

And then, on the other hand, we’ll be — we’re saying although this is really technically a legislative decision, the court is closing in on you.

And, so, you really don’t have much choice there.

ROBERT GATES: You know, I didn’t spend a career in the military. But I have read a lot of history, and I can’t think of a single precedent in American history of doing a referendum of the American armed forces on a policy issue.

Are you going to ask them if they want 15-month tours? You going to ask them if they want to be part of the surge in Iraq? That’s not the way our civilian-led military has ever worked in our entire history.

The “should” question needs to be decided by the Congress or the courts, as far as I’m concerned.

I think, in effect, doing a referendum of the service — of the members of the armed forces on a policy matter is a very dangerous path.

JIM LEHRER: Tomorrow, the Armed Services Committee hears from leaders of the individual services. They have been more critical of repealing don’t ask, don’t tell.

Now to two members of the Senate Armed Services Committee: independent Democrat Joe Lieberman of Connecticut — he’s a co-sponsor of repeal legislation — and Republican Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, who opposes it.

Gentlemen, welcome. Senator Lieberman, is it basically a civil rights issue for you?

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (I-Conn.): It’s a civil rights issue, but it’s also a national security issue.

I mean, it’s a civil rights issue, because we make a basic promise in this country that you’re going to be judged, not by who you are, your race, your gender, your religion, et cetera, or sexual orientation, but how you do the job.

And don’t ask, don’t tell has resulted in 14,000 people in our military being tossed out over the last 17 years, not because they were inadequate soldiers, not because they violated the military code of conduct, but simply because of their sexual orientation. That’s wrong.

And, as a matter of civil rights, it ought to be changed. But I can tell you that, if I felt that changing this policy would compromise our national security in any way, I wouldn’t be for it. In fact, when you think about it, tossing out 14,000 people willing to put their lives on the line to protect our security and freedom, including a lot of people who have specialized skills, that was bad for our military.

And think about all the others who may be gay or lesbian who want to volunteer and enlist in the services, have the skills and the courage to really serve our country, and don’t come in because they don’t want to live a lie, or live with the fear that somebody’s going to out them and they’re going to be tossed out of the military.

So, I think it’s good civil rights policy and really good for our national security.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Saxby, you don’t think it would be good for national security; is that right?

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS (R-Ga.): Well, that’s exactly right, Jim. You know, this policy has been in effect for going on 18 years now. And…

JIM LEHRER: Chambliss. I’m sorry. Excuse me.

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: We — we have an awful lot of members of every branch of the military, Jim, who are gay and lesbian. They have served under this policy. They have served with distinction, with honor, and with great valor. And it’s worked.

And we had 42,000 discharges in the Marine Corps last year — 78 of those were under this don’t ask, don’t tell policy. Here, we’re going to make a major change and a shift in the way the military does business because of 78 Marines?

I don’t think that’s the way that the military should operate. So, we have got a policy that does work. It’s a policy that, you know, a lot of people don’t like. And I understand that. But it has worked. And — and when a majority of the members of the military say they are opposed to repealing don’t ask, don’t tell, as this survey does say, then I think it’s wrong to repeal that policy at this time, in the middle of two conflicts, especially.

JIM LEHRER: You heard what — of course, what Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen said, but particularly Secretary Gates said on the issue of asking the troops what they think about a major policy issue. You just simply disagree with the secretary; is that right, Senator?

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: Well, I do. I think, if you’re going to make a change of this nature, and — and — I mean, Joe’s absolutely right that this is not a civil rights issue. It truly is a national security issue. He and I agree on that.

And this survey itself, if you — if you’re talking to somebody sitting behind a desk that’s a member of the United States Air Force, and they have somebody in that — their office who is gay or lesbian, it’s not a big deal to them. And I understand that.

But, when you look at the results of this survey, and you have 60 percent to 65 percent of the men and women who — men who are in combat in either the United States Army or the United States Marine Corps saying this is going to have a negative impact on performance and morale in their units, that’s the type of discussion that — that this survey does bring forward in a way that tells me this is not the time to do this. It’s not right.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Lieberman, you read the survey results differently?

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: I do. And it’s quite important, I think, because there’s a difference here between those in the combat units in the Army and the Marine Corps who are not serving with gay and lesbian colleagues in their units who are concerned about the impact it would have on their military effectiveness and on the cohesion of the unit. Those numbers are the ones that Saxby has mentioned.

But, to me, the most heartening numbers were that 84 percent of the Marines in combat and 89 percent of the combat Army who say they know they have a gay or lesbian soldier, sailor, Marine Corps, et cetera, in their unit say it hasn’t been a problem.

So, I understand that we’re dealing with a lot of concern. It’s an awkward situation. It’s something a lot of people have not confronted in their lives. But the reality is that, once it happens, and — and troops are serving with gay and lesbian troops, then it’s not a problem.

And it’s not a problem for the same reason integration of African-Americans and women have not been a problem, because, ultimately, the military is just a great institution, committed to a higher cause, which is our national security and freedom. And they don’t care about who you are, so long as you’re — how you do your job, so long as you’re a good soldier.

And that’s, I’m confident, exactly the way in which members of the American military would greet their gay and lesbian fellow troops, when this is repealed.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Chambliss, what about the other issue that Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen raised, which is the courts are going to do — probably going to do this anyhow, and that would be very disruptive?

At least, if the Congress of the United States does this, it can be done in a gradual way, in an orderly way, and he prefers it that way. Why do you disagree with that?

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: Well, because I don’t know that the courts are going to do that. This is not the first time this issue has come before the appellate courts in this country.

It certainly has been years since it’s been an issue before the courts, but they have consistently upheld the don’t ask, don’t tell policy. Are we in a different era today? Sure. But the laws that are in place today were in place when those decisions were made years ago.

So, I’m pretty confident that we have got good lawyers in the military justice system that are well-prepared to argue the case. And, ultimately, this case probably will go to the Supreme Court, if it stays in the judicial system. And I’m confident of that and confident of our position on this.

JIM LEHRER: Back to the — the Senate, the immediate business that you all have before you.

Why is it, Senator Chambliss — I want to ask you the same thing, Senator Lieberman — that this thing has fallen strictly along party lines? What is it, the difference between Democrats and Republicans on don’t ask, don’t tell that is so rigid between the two parties?

Senator Chambliss first.

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: Yes, I don’t know that I can specifically say, Jim, why it’s a Democrat/Republican issue.

But, certainly, you are right. I don’t think, by any means, there’s any difference in morality or whatever level you try to look at this on between Democrats and Republicans. But this just happens to be something that we feel very strongly about. The constituency that comes from the gay community, I think, historically is Democratic, and that may be part of it.

I don’t know, although I have got a lot of friends who are members of the gay community. And they’re good people. And we have good working relationships, as well as good friendships. So, it’s not a Republican issue to me. Joe’s exactly right. In my mind, it’s an issue of national security. It just happens to be one where Republicans and Democrats disagree.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read that, Senator Lieberman?

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Well, I think it’s really — first off, it’s not totally a partisan split. Senator Susan Collins of Maine, Republican, voted for the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell in our Armed Services Committee. Senator Scott Brown voted for the bill with the repeal in it, although he hasn’t said exactly how he would vote on a repeal separately.

I think there are other Republicans who have indicated an openness to this. But it — this is — it’s unfortunate. And I think it may reflect how partisan the place has become, because this isn’t a partisan issue. It’s not really even a liberal or conservative issue. I mean, on the civil rights part of it, it’s just basic American values of equal opportunity.

And on the national security side, people — you might have a difference of opinion, but it shouldn’t break on party lines. I want to say, with all respect to my Republican colleagues here, that my sense of this is that, out among the American people, registered Republicans are more open to not — protecting people from being discriminated against based on their sexual orientation than seems to be the case among our Republican colleagues here in the Senate on this particular issue.

All the public opinion polling around the country shows very large majorities in favor of repealing don’t ask, don’t tell, because it makes good sense in terms of equal opportunity and national security.

JIM LEHRER: Senators, we have to leave it there. Thank you both very much.

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS: Thank you, Jim.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Thank you.