Gates To Senate: End 'Don't Ask' Before Courts Do

Robert Gates

Defense Secretary Robert Gates listens to a reporter's question during a news briefing about gays in the military Tuesday at the Pentagon. Charles Dharapak/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Charles Dharapak/AP

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on Tuesday urged Congress to repeal the 17-year-old ban on openly gay Americans serving in the armed forces, citing a just-released Pentagon report that concluded such a change would carry little risk for military readiness, effectiveness or unit cohesion.

His view was strongly seconded by Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen at an afternoon news conference with Gates. "I fully endorse their report, its findings and the implementation plan," Mullen said.

"My personal opinion is now my professional view," Mullen said, "that this is a policy change that we can make in a relatively low-risk fashion ... given time and strong leadership."

Key Findings

The Pentagon's study on repealing "don't ask, don't tell" was based on responses from some 115,000 troops and more than 44,000 military spouses, as well as face-to-face meetings with troops on bases around the world. Among the key findings:

  • Seventy percent of troops surveyed believed that repealing the law would have mixed, positive or no effect.
  • A significant minority — 30 percent of service members overall — predicted negative consequences from a repeal. That number was 43 percent among Marines overall, and 58 percent among Marines serving in combat posts.
  • Concerns about the impact of repeal were strongest among those in combat posts in both the Army and Marines. For example, nearly 60 percent of respondents in the Marines and in Army combat posts said repeal would have a negative impact on unit effectiveness "in a field environment or out at sea."
  • Sixty-nine percent of all respondents said they have served with a co-worker "believed to be homosexual."
  • When those in the overall military were asked about the experience of working with someone whom they believed to be gay or lesbian, 92 percent stated that their unit's ability to work together was either very good, good, or neither good nor poor.
  • In general, female service members were "substantially less likely to perceive negative impacts following repeal than male service members" for "all the issues asked about in the survey."

NPR Staff

Gates, who as head of the CIA in 1992 oversaw the end of discrimination against gay job applicants, also issued a stark warning to repeal opponents on Capitol Hill: Blocking current efforts to end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy before Congress adjourns next month, he said, would throw the issue to the federal courts, creating more risk to military operations.

A change imposed by "judicial fiat," Gates said, as recent court cases have already shown, would be "far more disruptive and hazardous to battlefield readiness" than congressional repeal.

"This must come by legislative change," said Gates, who acknowledged that feelings on the issue run deep but often are based on "unfamiliarity" and "stereotypes."

He also urged Congress to "resist the urge to lure our troops and their families into the politics of this issue."

President Obama, in a statement, also called on the Senate to act soon. He said that the report "confirms that, by every measure — from unit cohesion to recruitment and retention to family readiness — we can transition to a new policy in a responsible manner that ensures our military strength and national security."

Ball In Congress' Court

The U.S. House has already approved repeal. Senate Democrats are attempting to secure enough Republican support to overcome threats of a filibuster made, most prominently, by repeal opponent John McCain of Arizona.

McCain, who once said he would endorse repeal if military leaders got behind it, is among those who have criticized the report in advance of its release, claiming that its findings are marred by the fact that 115,000 of 400,000 service members, or fewer than 30 percent, returned surveys asking for their views on gays and lesbians in the military.

It is that argument that appeared to anger the matter-of-fact Gates.

The notion that the Pentagon was taking a poll of the military, he said, or asking members to vote on whether to change the rule is "antithetical to our system."

As the military's commander in chief, President Obama has made his position on repeal clear, Gates said, and it's the military's job "to determine how best to prepare for the change should Congress change the law."

Gates, Mullen and other top military leaders are scheduled to testify Thursday and Friday before the Senate Armed Services Committee about the survey findings.

Concerns 'Driven By Misperceptions And Stereotypes'

The comments by the nation's top two military leaders came as the Pentagon working group released the results of a nine-month-long study ordered by Obama to assess the effect that repeal may have on military readiness and effectiveness, and to recommend a plan to implement changes that would be needed in the event of repeal.

Characterized by its authors as the "the largest, most comprehensive review of a personnel policy matter which the Department of Defense has ever undertaken," the assessment showed that 70 percent of service members say that having openly gay service members would have little or no effect on their unit's ability to work together "to get the job done."

In fact, 69 percent of the 115,000 service members who returned surveys said that they had already served with a co-worker whom they believed to be gay.

Implementation of repeal would not involve plans for separate facilities for gay members, Gates said. Such arrangements, the review found, would be "a logistical nightmare, expensive and impossible to administer."

Both Gates and Mullen noted that service members most resistant to repeal are those in all-male combat and special forces units, and that their concerns have been taken into consideration.

Army Gen. Carter F. Ham and Defense Department General Counsel Jeh C. Johnson, authors and co-chairs of the long-awaited review, said that they are "convinced that the U.S. military can make this change, even during this time of war."

"The reality is that there are gay men and lesbians already serving in today's U.S. military, and most service members recognize this," Johnson said at Tuesday's news conference.

"In the course of our assessment," Johnson said, "it became apparent to us that aside from the moral and religious objections to homosexuality, much of the concern about openly gay service members is driven by misperceptions and stereotypes."

The authors noted that in "civilian society," there is no law requiring that gay Americans keep their sexual orientation secret to keep their jobs — though many "still tend to be discreet about their personal lives."

They predicted that would also likely be the case in the U.S. military post-repeal. They also did not recommend that sexual orientation be considered acceptable criteria, alongside race and gender, for diversity programs.

The report's authors suggested that much of the concern about openly gay service members can be attributed to misunderstandings about gay people and gay service members.

Not Changing Personal Views, But Coexisting

Johnson and Ham also laid out a five-point plan for implementing repeal.

The proposals range from providing strong leadership on repeal implementation and a more robust policy for uniform standards of conduct for all service members, to allowing those discharged under the DADT policy to apply for re-entry into the military.

Johnson said that he and Ham did not take lightly the views of service members who objected on religious or moral grounds to serving with openly gay Americans.

"However," Johnson said, "the reality is that in today's U.S. military, people of sharply different moral values and religious convictions already coexist, work, live and fight together on a daily basis.

"An important part of the message associated with the repeal of don't ask, don't tell should be that service members will not be required to change their personal views and religious beliefs," he said. "They must, however, continue to respect and serve with others who hold different views and beliefs."

One gay service member told the working group that repeal would "take a knife out of my back."

The co-chairs said they received 115,000 responses from surveys sent to 400,000 service members — including those in the National Guard and Reserve. They got 44,000 replies from the 150,000 spouses of service members who were sent surveys, and received 72,000 comments online from service members and families.

Ham reported that 95 face-to-face meetings were held with more than 24,000 service members worldwide, and 140 "demographically selected" focus groups were organized.

They said they spoke with faculty, staff and students at military academies, met with veterans groups, and solicited comments from gay and lesbian service members through a confidential communications system.

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