WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is taking the first steps to peel back the controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which bars homosexuals from serving openly in the military, with a year-long review of the law.
The assessment will look at attitudes within the military and what legal, social, and infrastructural changes would have to take place to repeal the law, said Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a Senate hearing Tuesday.
Mr. Gates has also ordered a 45-day review of the legal aspects of the law, with an eye to ensuring that service members outed by a third party are not discharged.
At the Senate hearing Tuesday, Mullen, a Vietnam war veteran and the senior officer of the military, acknowledged that not everyone agrees on eliminating the policy but said repeal is “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,” Mullen told a Senate panel. The military “can and would” accept a change, he said, adding, “I never underestimate their ability to adapt.”
The move comes a year after President Obama entered office pledging to end the 1993 policy responsible for forcing more than 13,000 service members out of the military. Scores more may have voluntarily left because they believed their sexual orientation was unwelcome in the military, say advocates for repeal.
There are strong views on both sides of the issue. Both anecdotal evidence and some polls suggest many younger service members are indifferent to the sexual orientation of their colleagues, in keeping with changing social attitudes toward homosexuality. But some continue to hold that allowing gay or lesbian service members to serve openly will undermine the cohesion within a unit that is critical to its readiness and effectiveness.
Retired Gen. John Shalikashvili, Mullen’s predecessor who presided over the military when the policy was implemented, has since come out in favor of repealing the policy. Other retired military members and senior officers have signed petitions against repeal.
“Our Marines are currently engaged in two fights, and our focus should not be drawn away from those priorities,” said Maj. David Nevers, a spokesperson for US Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway, in a statement, adding, “When the time is right, we have full confidence that we will be asked to provide best military advice concerning the readiness of the Corps as it relates to this issue.”
The year-long review will yield information to clarify thinking on the issue, officials say.
“The purpose of the review … is to find out what the force, what the men and women in our armed forces, and their families, really think about this,” Gates told a Senate panel Tuesday.
Some say repeal is now inevitable. Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on Tuesday cited a Gallup poll showing that 69 percent of Americans believe homosexuals have the right to serve openly. Senator Levin discounted concerns about unit cohesion, citing other militaries such as Canada, France, Germany and Israel, which allow gays and lesbians the opportunity to serve openly.
“There is no evidence that the presence of gay and lesbian colleagues would damage our military’s ability to fight,” Levin said.
Still, Obama can expect a fight. At the hearing, some Senate members reminded Mullen and Gates that they are not the deciders.
“I’m opposed to this change and I look forward to a very spirited debate on this,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) of Georgia.