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Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Reinstated, For Now; Repeal Effort Back in Limbo

October 21, 2010 at 4:47 PM EDT
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The military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy banning gays from serving openly in the ranks was reinstated Thursday -- at least for now. Margaret Warner talks to Time magazine's Mark Thompson about the legal battle over the policy, the Pentagon's ongoing review and what it means for gay servicemembers who recently re-enlisted.
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JEFFREY BROWN: The military’s policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” on gays serving openly in the ranks was reinstated, at least for now.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage.

KWAME HOLMAN: In New York’s Times Square on Wednesday, Dan Choi applied to reenlist in the Army. He’d been discharged for being openly gay last July, but the military announced Tuesday it had changed its rules.

DAN CHOI, discharged under don’t ask, don’t tell policy: We’re still in a time of war, and soldiers are still needed. Able-bodied and patriotic Americans, regardless of their orientation, are eligible to come on back and sign up to serve their country, openly, honestly, with integrity, acknowledging their partners, acknowledging their families and their lives as full citizens.

KWAME HOLMAN: Hours later, Choi and others were back in limbo after a federal appeals court reinstated don’t ask, don’t tell temporarily.

The policy has zigzagged since September, when federal Judge Virginia Phillips in California ruled it violated the free speech rights of gays and lesbians. Then, on Oct. 12, the judge issued a permanent injunction barring the U.S. military from enforcing don’t ask, don’t tell.

Two days later, the Obama administration asked the judge to lift the injunction, while it appeals the underlying ruling. She refused, but, last night, three members of the federal appeals court in San Francisco did freeze her injunction, at least until next Monday.

In response, the military today said don’t ask, don’t tell once again is its policy for now, but leaders of the various services now will have to approve any discharges based on it.

A new CBS News poll released overnight reaffirmed what other surveys found, that a majority now supports letting gays and lesbians serve openly.

President Obama has insisted he wants the don’t ask, don’t tell policy repealed, but through Congress and the executive branch, not just the courts.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It has to be done in a way that is orderly, because we are involved in a war right now. But this is not a question of whether the policy is end — will end. This policy will end, and it will end on my watch.

But I do have an obligation to make sure that I’m following some of the rules. I can’t simply ignore laws that are out there. I have got to work to make sure that they are changed.

KWAME HOLMAN: Some conservative advocates, including Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, say they want the policy to stand as is.

TONY PERKINS, president, Family Research Council: That this would be detrimental to the military’s mission. At a time when our military is stretched, this is not the time to begin a radical policy change. So, I think the fact that this judge is essentially saying she knows better than military leaders what’s best for our nation’s military is very troubling, because that actually is a threat to national security.

KWAME HOLMAN: In the meantime, a Pentagon review of how to end don’t ask, don’t tell is still under way, and due for completion in December.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on all this, we turn to Mark Thompson, Time Magazine’s Pentagon correspondent. Mark, welcome back.

MARK THOMPSON, deputy bureau chief, Time: Sure.

MARGARET WARNER: So, parse this for us, the new order that came out today. There was a briefing. What is this going to mean in practical terms?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, basically, Margaret, we’re going back to the status quo ante. We’re back to where we were a week ago, with one big difference.

From now on, if you’re a gay person, and they want to kick you out, it’s going to take the actual service secretary to sign off on that. In other words, it’s going to go through a funnel of one person, and they’re going to be sure it’s all done shipshape, and not in any embarrassing ways.

But, basically, don’t ask, don’t tell is back, and the bar has been put back a little higher than before.

MARGARET WARNER: So, is the intention to slow down these discharges or you think just to make sure they’re absolutely by the book?

MARK THOMPSON: Yes, I think to make sure they’re bulletproof. They don’t want — we’re getting to a very sensitive stage now. We have been there for a couple of months. And they don’t want any snafus.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what about would-be applicants who come to the recruiting stations, as Dan Choi did, what was it, yesterday or the day before, and they say, “I’m gay and I want to enlist?What happens to them?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, remember, when don’t ask, don’t tell came into being 17 years ago, the first half of that is don’t ask. The military stopped asking incoming recruits.

So, if incoming recruits come in now and they are gay, and they keep their mouths shut, they will be allowed to get in, as they have for the past 17 years. But if they volunteer that they’re gay, their recruiting papers will not be processed.

MARGARET WARNER: So, how hard has it been for the Pentagon to deal with this on-again/off-again policy from what you have heard from people at the Pentagon and in the field?

MARK THOMPSON: The sense is, they’re fed up with the ping-pong nature of it. They did set up a construct to make it go as smooth as they felt it could go. It was a prolonged construct, which some people argue isn’t the way to deal with an issue like this.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean this months-long review that they’re doing?

MARK THOMPSON: Yes, the months-long review, the fact that may want a year after the review to do all the training before the ban is officially lifted, which some folks are now arguing for.

But the key thing is that the recent aberrations have been handled pretty much as smoothly as silk, according to one Army recruiter in their places. I mean, some folks have come and said, “I’m gay. I want to enlist.” That’s now done. And now we will just have to wait for this to unspool.

MARGARET WARNER: And just briefly, so what happens to those who did come in, in the last two days and say, I’m gay and I want to enlist?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, plainly, as you know, in the military, Margaret, things don’t move fast. And those folks will not be allowed to enlist.

MARGARET WARNER: And do you happen to know if any gay service members out there serving did speak up and suddenly declare themselves gay?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, some of the gay rights groups have set up website dedicated to looking at what Secretary of Defense Bob Gates called the enormous consequences if this thing were lifted abruptly under the judge’s ruling. And, so far, it’s zero, zero, zero, zero. Nothing has happened. This is the dog that has not barked.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what is the status of the broader review? They sent out these surveys to service members, nearly half a million, then their families. That was in the early midsummer. Are those in yet?

MARK THOMPSON: Yes, I mean, it’s being collected by an outside firm. It soon will make its way throughout the Pentagon.

The sense I’m getting, talking to insiders, is this basically breaks down into thirds. A third of the body politic doesn’t care. A third opposes it, and a third is an advocate for lifting the ban. And the military…

MARGARET WARNER: This is within the military?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, the military, it’s going to be a little more warped.

MARGARET WARNER: Oh, you were talking about regular polling?

MARK THOMPSON: Right, just general polling. But the Marine commandant this weekend, John Conway, said 95 percent of the — James Conway said 95 percent of the Marines he has taken surveys of do not want to serve with openly gay men and women. That is a stunning figure, if that is what’s going to be in the poll.

The key question is, what’s going to be in the poll? If it’s that high, they’re going to have difficulty getting openly gay men and women to serve. But folks inside say, listen, we think we have reached a tipping point. We think this is doable. There will be some problems, but it looks like it can happen.

MARGARET WARNER: So, on Dec. 1, which was the deadline, or at least when Secretary Gates told Congress he’d have something, will they have just the results of the poll and some sort of outlines, or are they going to have a full policy recommendation laid out about how exactly they’d implement it?

MARK THOMPSON: I think it will be a full menu of options, saying, this is the best way forward, this is how we should do it.

MARGARET WARNER: But, I mean, will they say, we can do it, or is there some pushback now from the service chiefs?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, no, their — Well, the sense is, No. 1, their mission is not — their mission is only how we should do it if the law changes, not should it be changed.

So, they’re going to look for the best path to undo don’t ask, don’t tell. There is some sense that the service chiefs, especially the Marines and the Army, the ground force guys, are slow-rolling this thing. They don’t want it to move out fast. They want it to take a long time.

I mean, it’s interesting. The papers filed with the courts have said, we have to train everybody before we do this. Meanwhile, you talk to the generals in Afghanistan who are saying, my lord, we have more important things to worry about. This is the last thing on our minds. So, there is some sort of disconnect there.

MARGARET WARNER: So, is that why you’re saying it might take — they might be saying it will take us a year to roll it out? Because there are so many things that would have to be changed, everything from partner benefits to training, sensitivity training?

MARK THOMPSON: Yes, that’s the military’s mindset. I mean, when RAND studied this issue in 1993, the think tank, they said the way to do this is to do it immediately and do it with leadership. Don’t stretch it out. Don’t turn it into a taffy pull, which is what it has become. And that’s allowed all sorts of polarization to occur. And we’re sort of reaping the fruits of that right now.

MARGARET WARNER: Mark Thompson, Time Magazine, thank you.

MARK THOMPSON: Thank you, Margaret.