Gates, Mullen support overturning gay ban

(MILITARY TIMES)   Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress on Tuesday that he “fully supports” President Obama’s desire to repeal the law banning open military service by gays.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen agreed, adding that he personally believes gays should be able to serve openly in the military.

“We received our orders from the commander in chief, and we are moving out accordingly,” Gates said.

During a packed hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gates said he has ordered a 45-day review of Pentagon policy that will produce recommendations to “enforce this law in a fairer manner” while Congress decides whether to enact Obama’s call to repeal the controversial law and policy, which has banned military service by openly gay people beginning in 1994.

More than 13,500 gay service members have been discharged since then, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a Washington, D.C., group dedicated to repeal.

Gates told committee chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., that the review will examine internal conclusions that the Pentagon should, on its own, be able to raise the level of the officer who can initiate and conduct a “don’t ask, don’t tell” inquiry; “raise the bar on what constitutes credible information, what constitutes credible information”; and reduce the number of instances in which a gay service member is “outed” by a third party.

Gates, who acknowledged concerns about making such changes in the midst of two ongoing wars, also announced the formation of a longer-range review of current policy that will look at all aspects of repeal’s potential impact on the force “by the end of this calendar year.”

Gates said this review group, to be headed by Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Army Europe, and Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson, will examine all policies they believe could be affected, including service member benefits, base housing, fraternization and other issues.

It will also “examine potential impacts of a change in the law on military effectiveness” such as recruiting and retention, and “will develop ways to mitigate and manage any potential impacts.”

Mullen said he is “in complete support” of Gates’ recommended approach. He followed that comment with his first expression of his personal view on open service by gays.

“Speaking for myself and myself only, it is my personal and professional belief that allowing homosexuals to serve openly would be the right thing to do,” Mullen said.

Mullen said the department had spent the past two months reviewing the “fundamental premises” behind the law and policy, “as well as its practice over the past [17] years.”

Pentagon leaders “understand perfectly” Obama’s desire for repeal of the law, he said, adding: “We owe him our best military advice about the impact of such a repeal and the manner in which we would implement a change in policy.”

Mullen said he and the other Joint Chiefs “have not yet developed that advice and would like to have the time to do so in the same thoughtful, deliberate fashion with which the president has made it clear he wants to proceed.”

Further signaling a desire to proceed slowly, Mullen said that implementation “must be carefully derived, sufficiently thorough and thoughtfully executed.”

But in a personal sense, Mullen told the committee that he feels “don’t ask, don’t tell” is fundamentally unfair.

“No matter how I look at the 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,” Mullen said. “For me, it comes down to integrity — theirs as individuals and ours as an institution.”

Mullen said he believes the military would “accommodate” the change but added: “I do not know this for a fact, nor do I know for a fact how we would best make such a major policy change in a time of two wars.”

Mullen said he and the other Joint Chiefs “recognize the stress our troops and their families are under, and … should the law change … we need to move forward in a manner that does not add to that stress.”

Mullen acknowledged that such a change will have a significant impact. “That there will be some disruption in the force I cannot deny,” he said. “That there will be legal, social and perhaps even infrastructure changes to be made certainly seems plausible.”

The review Gates has ordered will examine such issues, Mullen said. But it is understood that any change ultimately must come from Congress, he added.

“The American people have spoken on this subject through you, their elected officials,” Mullen said. “And the result is the law and the policy we have.”

In the absence of any change, Mullen said, “we will continue to obey that law, and we will obey whatever legislative and executive decisions come out of this debate.”

Levin said he favors ending “don’t ask, don’t tell” and believes a change “would improve our military’s capability and reflect our commitment to equal opportunity.”

But a visibly upset Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the committee’s senior Republican, said he believes the policy, which he called “imperfect, but effective,” should not be overturned during a time of war.

Mullen said it will be important to fully explore the diverse views on the subject of open service by gays and that while “there are those on both sides of this debate who speak as if there is no debate … I hope we can be more thoughtful than that. I expect that we will be more thoughtful than that.”

Mullen said that he is “100 percent committed” to ensuring that Pentagon leaders listen to the concerns of the force and the general public.

“What the citizens we defend want to know — what they deserve to know — is that their uniformed leadership will act in a way that absolutely does not place in peril the readiness and effectiveness of their military,” Mullen said.

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