Joint Chiefs Chair Backs End To Military Gay Ban

The nation's top military officer told senators Tuesday he supports overturning the law barring gays from serving openly in the ranks. Adm. Mike Mullen's comments were the first time a senior active-duty officer has called for ending what's known as don't ask don't tell, which has forced thousands of gay servicemen from the ranks since it was enacted in 1993.

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And Im Robert Siegel.

The nations top military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, told senators today that he supports overturning the law that bars gays from serving openly in the ranks.

Admiral MIKE MULLEN (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): Speaking for myself and myself only, it is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do.

SIEGEL: This is the first time a senior active duty officer has called for ending whats known as dont ask, dont tell. Thats the law which has forced thousands of gay service members from the ranks since it was enacted in 1993.

NPRs Tom Bowman reports.

TOM BOWMAN: Admiral Mullen says he served with homosexuals since 1968, the year he graduated from the Naval Academy. He says hes bothered they cant be honest about who they are.

Adm. MULLEN: No matter how I look at this issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.

BOWMAN: Sitting next to Mullen during todays Senate hearing was Defense Secretary Robert Gates. He didnt offer his personal views but Gates did note President Obama wants to overturn the law.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): We have received our orders from the Commander in Chief, and we are moving out accordingly.

BOWMAN: So Gates says the Pentagon will begin a yearlong study to determine how it would move out should Congress repeal the law. That includes polling soldiers.

Sec. GATES: Particularly as it pertains to what are the true views and attitudes of our troops and their families.

BOWMAN: And Gates made clear that doing away with dont ask, dont tell could require fundamental changes in how the military works.

Sec. GATES: These include potential revisions to policies on benefits, base housing, fraternization and misconduct, separations and discharges, and many others.

BOWMAN: Gates says the review would get input from experts - think tanks and members of Congress. It didnt take long for Senator John McCain to offer his input.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Im deeply disappointed in your statement, Secretary Gates.

BOWMAN: McCain says Gates doesnt know yet what his study will show.

Sen. MCCAIN: It would be far more appropriate, I say with great respect, to determine whether repeal of this law is appropriate and what effects it would have on the readiness and effectiveness of the military before deciding on whether we should repeal the law or not.

BOWMAN: McCain said dont ask, dont tell has worked, and more than 1,000 retired military officers have signed a letter supporting it. McCain asked Mullen whether his fellow admirals and generals support repeal.

Sen. MCCAIN: What, in your view, are the opinions of the other members of the Joint Chief and combatant commanders about changing this policy?

Adm. MULLEN: I would certainly defer to them in terms of exactly

Sen. MCCAIN: In the near future, I would like you to ask them and we can have it on the record what their position is, in the near future.

Adm. MULLEN: Yes, sir.

BOWMAN: But not all the Joint Chiefs are on board with repealing dont ask, dont tell, Defense sources say. One particular hold out is the Marine commandant, General James Conway, who worries that allowing gays to serve openly would be disruptive to the military in a time of war. Much of the focus today was on Mullens statement in support of repeal of dont ask, dont tell. Here Senator Mark Udall, a Democrat from Colorado.

Senator MARK UDALL (Democrat, Colorado): Admiral Mullen, I think the centerpiece of your statement will be long remembered for the courage and the integrity and the - with which you outlined your own personal beliefs and how we can proceed.

BOWMAN: The Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama suggested Mullen was out of line. It was all up to Congress to repeal the law, not the military.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): You shouldnt use your power to in anyway influence a discussion or evaluation of the issue.

BOWMAN: Whether Congress repeals a law is far from certain - a House bill lacks enough votes, the Senate had not even introduced a bill. So, in the meantime, Defense Secretary Gates says the Pentagon will make it harder to kick out someone who is gay. He says the military will raise the bar in what information is needed to launch an investigation.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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Top Officer Calls For Ending 'Don't Ask' Policy

Robert Gates (left) and Michael Mullen arrive on Capitol Hill in Washington. i i

Defense Secretary Robert Gates (left) and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen arrive on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday to testify before a Senate Armed Services Committee. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Robert Gates (left) and Michael Mullen arrive on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates (left) and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen arrive on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday to testify before a Senate Armed Services Committee.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

The nation's top uniformed officer told lawmakers on Tuesday that repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that bans openly gay people from serving in the military is "the right thing to do."

"No matter how I look at the issue," Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen said, "I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens."

His statement followed an announcement that the Pentagon would review the law with an eye to repealing it.

Mullen, who appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee alongside Defense Secretary Robert Gates, emphasized that he was speaking for himself in calling for an end to the controversial policy, which dates back to 1993.

"For me, personally, it comes down to integrity — theirs as individuals and ours as an institution," Mullen said.

Review Of Policy Ordered

Gates told lawmakers that he has ordered the Pentagon to conduct a yearlong study on revising "don't ask, don't tell", but that in the meantime, he would seek recommendations in the next 45 days to make the existing policy "more appropriate and fair to our men and women in uniform."

Gates said Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson and Gen. Carter Ham, who leads Army forces in Europe, would be in charge of the yearlong assessment.

"The question is not whether the military will make this change, but how they will make this change," he told the gathered senators.

In his testimony, Mullen said that he and his fellow chiefs of staff "are in complete support of the policy outlined by the secretary."

But Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the ranking Republican on the panel, fired back, questioning Mullen's statement and asking that each of the chiefs' views be "on the record."

McCain said he was "deeply disappointed" by the decision to launch the study. He called the move "clearly biased," because it presumes the law should be changed. He chastised Gates for trying to change the policy "by fiat."

Gates later told the committee that he agreed that ultimately the policy would have to be changed by Congress. Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin suggested that a policy change could be accomplished as an amendment to the Defense Authorization bill.

McCain defended the current policy, saying he was "enormously proud and thankful for every American that chooses to put on a uniform and serve."

"Has this policy been ideal? No, it has not. But it has been effective," the Vietnam veteran and former Republican presidential nominee said. "It is well understood and predominantly supported by our fighting men and women. And it has sustained unit cohesion and unit morale, while still allowing gay and lesbian Americans to serve."

Gay Rights Groups Call For Permanent End To Policy

Gay rights activists have supported the president's promise to change the current policy, under which gay and lesbian service members can be dismissed if their sexual orientation is revealed.

Aubrey Sarvis, the executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an advocacy group for gay and lesbian troops, lauded Gates' short-term review but said that the larger policy needs to be abolished.

"Yes, we should bring down the number of these discharges to zero," he told NPR. "But ultimately, we will still have a 'don't ask, don't tell' statute on the books unless Congress repeals it.

"While this secretary and this administration may be committed to reducing discharges under 'don't ask, don't tell,' that may not be true of the next secretary or the next administration," he said.

Mullen acknowledged "that there will be some disruption in the force, I cannot deny," adding that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were already putting a lot of stress on service members.

"Should the law change, we need to move forward in a way that does not add to that stress," he told the committee.

Assessing Ways To End Ban, Extend Benefits

The senior-level study would recommend the best way to lift the ban, starting from the premise that the goal will take time to accomplish, but that it can be done without harming the capabilities or cohesion of the military force, he said.

The review would consider revisions of housing, benefits and fraternization that would come with allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly.

"This will represent a fundamental change in personnel policies," Gates said.

According to Pentagon figures released Monday, fewer gay and lesbian service members were dismissed under the current policy in 2009 than at any time in the last decade — a trend that started in 2001, as the war on terrorism got under way.

According to those figures, 428 service members in 2009 were fired for being openly gay, compared with 619 in 2008. In 1997, 997 service members were dismissed. Overall, more than 10,900 troops have been fired under the policy.

In addition to addressing the military's policy on gays, Gates and Mullen outlined the military's $768 billion budget for 2011, and another $33 billion requested in war spending this year.

With reporting by NPR's Scott Neuman and Tom Bowman. Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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