Congress To Hear Testimony On Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, the top military officer, testify before Congress on Tuesday about the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy. They are expected to discuss what the Pentagon would need to do if Congress chose to abolish the federal law that prohibits homosexuals from serving openly in the military.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The secretary of defense and the nations top military officer are expected to talk today about whether gay service members should be allowed to serve openly in the military. Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen will testify before Congress, and theyll be asked what would happen if Congress repeals the controversial law, don't ask, don't tell. NPRs Pentagon correspondent has been following this story, and joins us now.

Tom Bowman, good morning.

TOM BOWMAN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What are Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen likely to say?

BOWMAN: Well, we expect them to say that theyre a long way from any detailed plan in how they carry out a repeal of don't ask, don't tell. Im told theyre really at a preplanning stage. And today, theyre expected to create a group within the Pentagon that would determine how all this would be handled.

Now, they have a number of questions they want the group to consider, such as how would the force take this. Should they do polling or surveys to gauge support or opposition within the force to allowing gay members to serve openly? They also have more practical questions, such as should the services provide benefits to spouses of gay services members?

So the bottom-line is this could take a year or more, and theyre nowhere near the point where they could tell Congress this how well carry out a new policy that allows gays to serve openly.

MONTAGNE: Well, before Congress even considers repealing the law, are there things the Pentagon can do on its own, or is doing on its own?

BOWMAN: Well, thats what we expect Secretary Gates to talk about today. Last summer, he asked his top lawyer, the Pentagons general counsel, to look at whether dont ask, don't tell could be implemented more humanely. Thats the term they used at the time.

And that means, for example, that a third party couldnt out someone and spur an investigation. So we expect him to talk about a little bit about that today, and really how the bar would be much higher now for investigation. And that obviously would mean fewer people getting kicked out.

We also expect him to say that discharges of gay service members have dropped quite a big in President Obamas first year in office, as much as 30 percent.

MONTAGNE: And why is that?

BOWMAN: Well, we really don't know for sure. What we do know, of course, is the president has said - both as a candidate and as commander-in-chief - he wants to do away with this policy. And that may have had an effect within the military, sort of a ripple effect.

MONTAGNE: Tom, what is the likelihood that Congress will actually overturn dont ask, don't tell?

BOWMAN: Well, right now, they don't have the votes in the House. There are about 187 supporters on the House side. They still need several dozen more for a majority. And I spoke with a Congressman whos leading the effort there, Representative Patrick Murphy, a Democrat from Pennsylvania and also an Iraq War veteran. And heres what he told me.

Representative PATRICK MURPHY (Democrat, Pennsylvania): Ive talked to the president about this. Ive talked to his staff about this. And theyve made it very clear that they want to get this repeal done. Washington, though, is a tough place to make change happen. And Im not sure Congress has the guts to do it.

BOWMAN: Now, thats on the House side. On the Senate side, in the meantime, theres no sponsor at all. But the president said, of course, in the State of the Union, hed work with Congress this year to repeal the law. The question remains, though, how much will the president push the issue, and whether the military taking a year will be acceptable.

MONTAGNE: Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. And the secretary of defense and the nations top military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, will testify before Congress today on the law don't ask, don't tell.

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