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Senators Clash Over Don't Ask, Don't Tell as Top Pentagon Brass Calls for Repeal

5 years ago
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Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday that they both personally support the repeal of the law banning gays from serving openly in the U.S. military. They then detailed the Pentagon's plans to prepare for eventual changes to the law.

Mullen began his remarks by telling senators that he will obey any law that Congress passes, but, "It is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military is the right thing to do," he said. "It comes down to integrity-- theirs as individuals and ours as an institution." Mullen added, "I have served with homosexuals in the military since 1968."

Gates also said he favors changing the law. "The president has directed the Department of Defense to begin the preparations to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell. I fully support the president's decision," Gates said. "The question is not whether we prepare to make this change, but how we prepare to make it."

The 1993 law, known as Don't Ask Don't Tell, bans anyone who is openly gay from serving in the military, but also stipulates that military leaders may not ask if a member of the service is gay.

President Obama announced last week in his State of the Union address that he will work with Congress to lift the ban in 2010. Any change to the law, including a repeal, would require congressional action.

As a result of the president's directive, Gates testified that he has created a high-level working group to do perform two functions-- first to conduct a full review of any Pentagon policies and procedures that would be affected by a change in the policy and to issue a report at the end of 2010. Secondly, he asked the group to conduct an immediate review of how the Pentagon might implement the current law in a "more appropriate and fair manner" until Congress makes a decision about whether or not to change it.

Despite their personal opinions about repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell, Gates and Mullen both said that their highest priority is the welfare and readiness of the military. They also both said they do not know how a change to the policy would affect the soldiers currently fighting two wars, and that more study is necessary to ensure any change is made effectively and properly.

Senators clashed over Gates' and Mullen's testimony, with Democrats mostly welcoming a change to the law and Republicans strongly opposing it.

"We should end Don't Ask Don't Tell," said committee Chairman Carl Levin, who opposed the law when it was passed in 1993. "We can end it and we should do it in a way that honors our nation's values."

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) also said he supports repeal, as did Sen. Roland Burris (D-Conn.), who called allowing gays in the military a matter of basic fairness like the decision to allow African Americas to serve.

But Republicans blasted both the idea of changing the law, as well as Gates' statement that the Pentagon is preparing for the day when it is repealed.

Sen. John McCain, the top-ranking Republican on the panel, called Don't Ask Don't Tell an "imperfect, but effective" policy, and slammed Gates for assuming the law would be changed, calling Gates "clearly biased."

"I am happy to say that we still have a Congress of the United States that would have to repeal the law, despite your efforts to repeal it by fiat," McCain told Gates.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) also strongly opposed repealing the law, noting that the military prohibits soldiers from a range of personal behaviors, including displaying tattoos and body art. "In my opinion, the presence in the armed forces of persons who demonstrate a propensity to engage in homosexual activity would very likely create an unacceptable risk to the high moral standards of the military."

Although Gates' and Mullen's personal support for a repeal of the law may help chances for repeal, actually reversing the law will require a vote by the majority of the House and 60 senators, an increasingly difficult threshold to reach. Their testimony also made it unlikely that Congress will vote on repealing the law before 2011.

Following the hearing, Levin said that he is considering enacting a moratorium on dismissals of service members under Don't Ask Don't Tell until the Gates' commission reports back with its findings. "It makes a lot of sense to me," he said.

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