Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday urged the Senate to speedily repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' law banning gays from serving openly in the military, as the Pentagon released a year-long internal study
that found repeal would cause only ''limited and isolated'' short-term disruptions to military readiness and esprit.
Seventeen years to the day after President Clinton signed into law the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'
policy, the Pentagon formally asked that the law be abolished and set out both the rationale and the procedure to implement what would be a broad social change among the nation's 2.5 million active-duty, reserve and National Guard soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.
"Although potentially disruptive in the short term,'' Gates said, repeal "would not be the wrenching, traumatic change many have feared and predicted.''
He said the welfare and effectiveness of those doing the fighting and dying since 9/11 have "guided every decision I have made in the Pentagon over the past four years. It will be no different on this issue,'' he said, vowing to "minimize any negative impact on the moral cohesion and effectiveness of combat units.''
Gates and other defense officials said allowing openly gay service members could be achieved, given some unspecified time of preparation, without creating separate shower or bedroom facilities, and within existing law and regulations concerning benefits.
In a statement, President Obama said he had pledged to repeal the ban "because it weakens our national security, diminishes our military readiness, and violates fundamental American principles of fairness and equality by preventing patriotic Americans who are gay from serving openly in our armed forces. At the same time, as Commander in Chief, I am committed to ensuring that we understand the implications of this transition, and maintain good order and discipline within our military ranks."
Endorsing the report's findings, Obama urged the Senate to repeal. "With our nation at war and so many Americans serving on the front lines, our troops and their families deserve the certainty that can only come when an act of Congress ends this discriminatory policy once and for all,'' he said. "Our troops represent the virtues of selfless sacrifice and love of country that have enabled our freedoms. I am absolutely confident that they will adapt to this change and remain the best-led, best-trained, best-equipped fighting force the world has ever known.''
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also concurred with the report's findings, and noted that whatever the personal feelings of individual service members about repeal of the law, existing military regulations on personal behavior would continue to govern."We in uniform have an obligation to follow orders,'' he said. "We treat people with dignity and respect in the armed forces -- or we don't last long.''
Gates and Mullen had previously declared themselves in favor of repeal of the gay ban, arguing that it required gay and lesbian service members to lie, violating the military's highest value of honor. The service chiefs, who head the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, have expressed greater doubts
about repeal, with Gen. James Amos, Marine commandant, expressing outright opposition.
Nonetheless, about two-thirds of active-duty, reserve and National Guard personnel would be comfortable serving alongside openly gay or lesbian service members or felt indifferent about the change, the study found.
More resistance was found within the largely male Marine Corps and Army combat troops and special operations units, where the Pentagon study found 40 to 60 percent either were opposed to repeal of the gay ban or said it would harm the critical camaraderie of their units.
But across the military services, the study also found that about 69 percent of troops have served with a gay or lesbian service member. Of those, 92 percent said they either favored repeal or did not oppose it.
Even among combat units with the greatest doubt about changing the law, 84 percent of the Marines and 89 percent of Army soldiers who said they had served with gays or lesbians said they did not oppose repeal.
Asked at a Pentagon briefing Tuesday about doubts and reservations among troops about repeal of the law, Gates said, "Part of this is a question of unfamiliarity, part of it is stereotypes, and part of it is just inherent resistance to change when you don't know what's on the other side.''
Implementation of repeal, detailed in a separate Pentagon report
released Tuesday, could take months or longer, defense officials said, as the Defense Department and the military services establish training programs and adjust policies to accommodate gay and lesbian partner benefits, for instance.
Even if the Senate joins the House in approving repeal of the law, the Pentagon could not implement the change until the president, defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that military readiness would not be affected. It is possible that neither Gates, who has said he will retire next year, nor Mullen, whose term ends next fall, will be responsible for such certification.
The House voted in September to repeal the law, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he intends to bring the issue to a Senate vote during the current lame-duck session. A provision to repeal is attached to the pending defense budget authorization bill. Many GOP supporters of the current gay ban, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, have vowed to prevent a vote on repeal.
In urging speedy Senate action to repeal the law, Gates said the worst outcome would be to have the courts order an immediate lifting of the gay ban, an outcome that could be imminent.
In September, DADT was ruled unconstitutional
by a U.S. district court judge, who issued a global injunction halting Pentagon investigation and discharge of gay service members. The injunction was put on temporary hold by the 9th
Circuit Court of Appeals, technically allowing enforcement of DADT to continue for an uncertain period.
A Senate vote to repeal would not bring quick change. "We are asking for time subsequent to that to prepare adequately before the change is implemented,'' Gates said. He said he did not know how long that might take, but he noted that President Obama, who has pressed for repeal, "will be watching very carefully to ensure that we don't dawdle or slow-roll on this.''
To have the courts interfere and impose abrupt change by judicial fiat "would be would be by far the most damaging and disruptive scenario I can imagine . . . to battlefield performance,'' Gates told reporters.
In a pointed remark aimed at repeal opponents in the Senate, he added: "Those who choose not to act legislatively are rolling the dice that this policy will not be abruptly overturned by the courts.''
The task force findings were based on the views of about 255,000 service members and military family members whose opinions were solicited by e-mail, in town meetings, in demographically balanced focus groups and by confidential communication. The task force study was headed by Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson and Army Gen. Carter Ham, a former enlisted paratrooper who commands Army troops in Europe.
This was not a binding opinion poll, Gates stressed, since civilian leaders are responsible for setting policy, not individual troops. But Gates said the opinions and experiences of the troops are important in designing implementation of such a significant change as repealing the law.
In large measure, that is because smooth implementation of the change will depend on the behavior and good will of troops in the ranks. Defense officials expect that most gays and lesbians currently in uniform will continue to be discrete, out of a desire to "fit in.'' But officials also stressed that military law requires high standards of personal behavior, and those standards will not be relaxed.
"We believe it is not necessary to establish an extensive set of new or revised standards of conduct in event of repeal,'' Johnson said. Among the adjustments to the Uniform Code of Military Justice that might be required, he told reporters at the Pentagon, are a provision allowing for prosecution of consensual sodomy, and the definition of adultery.
To military members who expressed moral or religious objections to serving with gays, Johnson said those concerns "cannot be downplayed or dismissed.''
But the reality, he said, "is that in today's U.S. military people of sharply different moral values and religious convictions already co-exist, work, live and fight together on a daily basis.'' No one, he said, will be required to change their own views or values, but they must respect the values of others.
Johnson also said the Pentagon currently has the authority to extend certain benefits to same-sex partners by allowing soldiers to designate anyone of their choice to be a beneficiary.
Allowing a same-sex partner of a service member to be designated as a "dependent,'' which would confer a wide array of benefits, is not under consideration, he said. And many military benefits cannot be legally extended to gay and lesbian couples even if they are legally married in a state that allows such unions.
With publication of the twin Pentagon reports on repeal of the gay ban, the issue moves to Capitol Hill, where the Senate Armed Services Committee
will hold hearings on Thursday and Friday, when the service chiefs will be called to testify.