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Don't Ask, Don't Tell Policy's Days Numbered?

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Don't Ask, Don't Tell Policy's Days Numbered?

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Don't Ask, Don't Tell Policy's Days Numbered?

Don't Ask, Don't Tell Policy's Days Numbered?

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Seventeen years after its passage in Congress, the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy's days may be numbered. Last week President Obama told Congress he wants to work with lawmakers and the military this year to end that policy, which has led to the expulsion from the armed forces of more than thirteen-thousand gay and lesbian servicemembers. Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced plans Tuesday for a yearlong study of how a repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell might affect the military. And a key Senate panel had its first hearing on such a repeal.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

The military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy may be on its way out, 17 years after it was enacted by Congress. President Obama told Congress last week he wants to work with lawmakers and the military this year to end it. More than 13,000 gay and lesbian servicemembers have been expelled from the military during the time the policy's been in place.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced plans, yesterday, for a year-long study on how repealing the policy might affect the military. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: What Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Admiral Mike Mullen thinks, matters to many, both inside and outside the armed forces, since he's the highest ranking official of the nation's uniformed military. Yesterday, Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee he thought the time had come to end Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

Admiral MIKE MULLEN: It is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do. 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.

WELNA: Like Mullen, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the panel he fully supported President Obama's decision to push for the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Gates said the Pentagon is setting up a task force not to look at whether such a repeal should happen, but rather at how it might affect the armed forces when it does happen.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): I expect that our approach may cause some to wonder why it will take the better part of a year to accomplish the task.

WELNA: Gates said a year was needed to carry out the study in order to have a thorough review. But when a reporter later asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid about Gates's time line, the Senate's top Democrat said the expulsion of gays from the military should end now.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): I don't know why we would need a year to study this. It doesn't really make a lot of sense to me.

WELNA: Still, some of the most outspoken opponents of Don't Ask, Don't Tell said they were heartened by Admiral Mullen's public repudiation of the policy. Aubrey�Sarvis who heads the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network was at yesterday's hearing.

Mr. AUBREY�SARVIS (Heads, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network): This is a very remarkable day and it's a very encouraging day for those of us who are advocating full repeal.

WELNA: Less enthusiastic was Army Lieutenant Dan Choi. This Iraq War veteran who's fluent in Arabic is currently fighting his expulsion from the Army after revealing in a TV interview last year that he was gay.

Lieutenant DAN CHOI (Army): I think there are some political people here that claimed victory, but until we know that people will not be fired for telling the truth there is no victory yet.

WELNA: More than 400 gay and lesbian servicemembers were expelled from the military during President Obama's first year in office. Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin says he intends to push for a measure that would halt those expulsions while the Pentagon carries out its study.

Chairman CARL LEVIN (Armed Services): I think what's more likely than repeal, I'm guessing, but we have to await the testimony that we're going to have, is a moratorium. I think is a probably a more likely prospect.

WELNA: New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand says if the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell that she's sponsoring is attached to this year's Defense Authorization bill it would be very hard for lawmakers to vote against it. Still, with politically perilous midterm elections looming, she admits, she has not yet rounded up the 60 votes that would be needed to push that measure forward.

Senator KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (Democrat, New York): I think the president will be a very helpful partner in getting the last few votes we need. But I can tell you, when I counted the votes there was not one Democrat who said no - there was undecided. And I think the only reasons given for indecision was leadership for the military and leadership from the president. And after this hearing we have both.

WELNA: Many Republicans, meanwhile, say this is not the time for Congress to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell. One of them is Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): Statutory changes to Don't Ask, Don't Tell, I think, are ill advised until the military has a chance to tell us what works and what doesn't.

WELNA: John Elliott, who's a former GOP spokesman for the Armed Services Committee, says Republicans are, in fact, divided over Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

Mr. JOHN ELLIOTT (Former GOP spokesman, Armed Services Committee): There's a camp, privately among Republicans, that believe that the party would probably be better off not going to the mat over something that is - that has the support of the top of the military as well as a lot in the rank and file, and something that is rapidly becoming a nonissue for younger generations of voters.

WELNA: But the coming months, Don't Ask, Don't Tell will likely remain a big issue on Capital Hill.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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