- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The military service chiefs will soon present their views to Congress marking the next stage in the debate on gays in the military amid signs they will not be as effusive in endorsing an end to “don’t ask, don’t tell” as has Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The flag officers who lead the Navy, Air Force, Army and Marine Corps have been especially guarded in public on providing their views. During last year’s budget hearings, none was pressed to give an opinion, as required for various issues involving the Joint Chiefs of Staff by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

But now that President Obama has called for ending the ban this year, the chiefs must speak.

Thus the four-star service chiefs will add their voices to the debate publicly for the first time during annual budget hearings on Capitol Hill, when they will be pressed on the issue. Current and former defense analysts say their views could sway final votes in the House and Senate.

Their testimony is expected to be crucial because the service chiefs have wide influence on Capitol Hill. They are the ones required by law to recruit, train and equip the armed forces to ensure they are ready to fight. The current law, on which the policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” is based, states that homosexuality is an “unacceptable risk” to good order and discipline.

Gen. James T. Conway, the Marine commandant, is said to have strenuously opposed the change in policy during private discussions with the other chiefs. Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief, is said to want to wait for the findings of a high-level study ordered recently by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who, like Adm. Mullen, has endorsed ending the ban on gays.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney, who was defense secretary in the George H.W. Bush administration, underscored the chiefs’ importance in the debate.

“When the chiefs come forward and say, ‘We think we can do it,’ then it strikes me that it’s time to reconsider the policy,” Mr. Cheney said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

The Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hear from Gen. Casey, and Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, on Feb. 23 and 25 respectively.

Congress likely will hear the views of commanders of the major U.S. war-fighting commands, such as Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, and Adm. Robert F. Willard, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, during annual budget hearings scheduled for next month.

A senior retired officer once involved in Pentagon discussions on the ban said Adm. Mullen, in a way, has pre-empted the chiefs’ testimony. Now that his views have been stated so firmly, the former officer said, the chiefs are under more pressure to follow the White House political line.

“That he got out in front of the chiefs by giving personal views on repeal instead of professional views that ‘the chiefs and I are working on it and will offer our best professional advice when the time is right’ is not, in my view, appropriate,” the officer said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Navy Capt. John Kirby, Adm. Mullen’s spokesman, said that “the chairman never intended to speak to anything but his personal opinion at the hearing. I will not comment on private discussions with the chiefs, but I can tell you that, as a former service chief himself, the chairman respects their responsibilities to form and articulate their own advice and opinions about matters pertaining to their respective services.”

A second former high-ranking officer endorsed Mr. Gates’ study, a move that gay rights groups oppose as too time consuming. This officer said the chiefs need to understand how open gays would fit in at the small unit level and then be able to sell the change to the rank and file.

“This change involves 100 percent of the people,” he said. “It’s a requirement it be done with all eyes wide open.”

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