Despite Presidential Promises, Don't Ask Don't Tell Still Rules

Since Obama took office, more than 400 gay service members have been forced out of the military due to Don't Ask Don't Tell, but the president has yet to take action on his campaign promise to repeal the Pentagon policy. He'll address the annual dinner of the gay rights advocacy group Human Rights Campaign Saturday night, and he'll likely have some explaining to do.

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Tonight, President Obama becomes the second sitting president to address the annual dinner of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights advocacy group. The other president who spoke at that dinner was Bill Clinton, who created the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy that prohibits gays from serving gays openly in the military.

That policy's lead to the expulsions of more than 13,000 service members. President Obama's repeatedly promised to repeal Don't Ask, don't Tell. And as NPR's David Welna reports tonight, he might have some explaining to do.

DAVID WELNA: Since President Obama took office, more than 400 gay service members have been forced out of the military due to Don't Ask, Don't Tell. And the president's failure to get rid of that policy is making him a target on late night TV. Here's "The Daily Show"'s Jon Stewart earlier this week on Comedy Central.

Mr. JON STEWART (Host): Wait, gay people aren't allowed to serve in the military? I remember when our current president was running for office, he was pretty clear about one thing…

President BARACK OBAMA: I think that we should end Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

I have stated repeatedly that Don't Ask, Don't Tell makes no sense.

WELNA: The last time President Obama addressed a large group of gay activists was at a White House reception in June. He declared then that he knew every day that goes by without a resolution of Don't Ask, Don't Tell must be a deep disappointment. But he assured those activists that he and the Pentagon were working on it.

Pres. OBAMA: We have made progress and we will make more. And I want you to know that I expect and hope to be judged not by words, not by promises I've made, but by promises that my administration keeps. And by the time…

WELNA: That was more than three months ago. Last Sunday, National Security Advisor James Jones was asked on CNN whether the time has come yet to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

Mr. JAMES JONES (National Security Advisor): The president has an awful lot on his desk. I know this is an issue that he intends to take on at the appropriate time, and he has already signaled that to the Defense Department. The Defense Department is doing the things it has to do to prepare. But at the right time I'm sure the president will take it on.

Mr. AUBREY SARVIS (Servicemembers Legal Defense Network): We need a sense of urgency of here. That's what's missing. There's not a sense of urgency about getting this done.

WELNA: That's Aubrey Sarvis. He heads the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a group that helps those affected by Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Sarvis says some progress has been made during the Obama administration on gay rights. The president just appointed an openly gay ambassador to New Zealand, and legislation is poised to pass Congress, widening the scope of hate crimes to include anti-gay violence. But Sarvis says the president has been too vague about Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

Mr. SARVIS: What we would like to see more of are the specifics. We'd like to see more of a timeline, and I hope on Saturday evening at the HRC dinner he will provide those.

WELNA: Meanwhile, an Iraq War veteran who describes himself as straight, Catholic and conservative, is leading the drive in the House to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Pennsylvania Democrat Patrick Murphy, who is also on the Armed Services Committee, says more and more members are backing his bill overturning the policy.

Representative PATRICK MURPHY (Democrat, Pennsylvania): We're up to 176 co-sponsors; we've got another 10 commitments that they'll vote for the bill - one that comes (unintelligible) - we have a commitment from Chairman Skelton to have a hearing on repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell and the status of it in winter or spring of 2010.

WELNA: Carl Levin chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee. He says he plans to hold his first hearing on Don't Ask, Don't Tell next month.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): I think we have to show enough respect for the men and women in uniform that we hear from them. Because if it is going to be changed, it's only going to happen if we can do this through a process which shows a willingness to listen to the men and women in uniform.

WELNA: More support in Congress would also be needed. So far, only one Republican's publicly endorsed a repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. And Democrats from conservative districts would have to be persuaded that a vote for such a repeal would not end up costing them reelection.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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