'Don't Ask' As Told By The Armed Services Chair

At a hearing on Friday, the heads of the Marines, Air Force and Army said repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" would cause a disruption to combat operations. Host Scott Simon speaks with Sen. Carl Levin, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, about the recent hearing on the possible repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Senator Carl Levin of Michigan is in favor of repealing don't ask, don't tell, and the Michigan Democrat is chairman of Senate Armed Services Committee. We reached him yesterday at his office at the capital.

Senator, thanks for being with us.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan; Chairman, Armed Services Committee): Thank you.

SIMON: Senator Levin, how do you respond to the argument that we heard from a few people this week. I think notably John McCain - Senator McCain was suggesting that although to many minds repealing this ban might be a good thing to do, it isn't a wise thing to do at the moment because of all the demands that are being made on the armed forces, with two theaters of operation.

Sen. LEVIN: Well, Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen, the top two leaders that we have, answered that on Thursday, very forcefully, which is there's always going to be a time probably when we are going to have men and women who are going to be in harm's way, and that this is a important time, it's a time when you can effectively make this change without - and this is their judgment - and this is the judgment which they made after this study was made - that you can make these changes right now without any unacceptable risks to our standards of military readiness and effectiveness.

And the survey, it seems to me, needs to be read by people who have real doubts as to whether this is a wise time to do it.

SIMON: A number of Republicans have been very open about saying they don't think this lame duck session ought to be considering anything that doesn't have to do with the immediate economic crisis that's in front of the country.

Sen. LEVIN: Well, they're filibustering the taxes issue, they're filibustering some of the bills that do deal with the economic crisis, just the way they're filibustering the defense authorization bill.

You know, the issue here is whether we're going to adopt a defense authorization bill that has hundreds of provisions in it that directly support our military. And for them to filibuster this bill and not allow it come to the floor, it seems to me, is a real blow to our national security.

They ought to allow it to come to the floor, debate it, and if they want to try to strike the don't ask, don't tell provisions, even though it is supported by our top military leaders, then they should take that opportunity on the floor of the Senate and try to strike this provision, which is their right to try to do, and then debate it.

SIMON: I think their argument, to counter yours, is that they get the impression that the Democrats are trying to use a lame-duck session of Congress, where a lot of people obviously were defeated, to legislate social policy and to get stuff passed that would have no chance of passing within just a few weeks when the new Congress is sworn in.

Sen. LEVIN: Well, actually, they're the ones who delayed this vote. We wanted to bring this bill to the floor back in May. We passed this bill 16-12 in the Armed Services Committee back in May and tried to bring this bill to the floor long before that election, and they were filibustering this bill that is so directly essential to the national security of this country based on some provisions - particularly one provision, on don't ask, don't tell - which they could have debated on the floor and sought to strike. But they didn't do that.

In fact, what they wanted is a study, and so that study was done and the results of that study are widespread support for repeal inside the military of don't ask, don't tell. The one exception being inside of the combat units, and there the report points out that when - even in combat units that people are fighting with gay people, that their attitudes change. And it seems to me that it's kind of hard for them to successfully or effectively or persuasively claim that this is now late when it is their insistence that we hold off on bringing this matter to the floor until after the completion of the study. The study was completed on December 1st and we're hoping to get this to the floor and overcome the Republican filibuster on this national defense bill as soon thereafter as is possible.

SIMON: Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Arms Services Committee. Thanks so much.

Sen. LEVIN: Sure. Good to be with you.

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