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."
Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, California Republican, told Adm. Mullen at a Feb. 3 hearing, "This position in support of repeal comes before your service chiefs have had the opportunity to conduct an in-depth review of the impact a repeal would have on military readiness. It seems that your path places the cart before the horse."
Pressed later at the House Armed Services Committee hearing on the chiefs' positions, Adm. Mullen said, "I don't speak for the chiefs in that regard. They will have an opportunity to do that. I have discussed this with them at considerable length. I would sum up their view to say that they need to understand that impact as well should this policy change."
Mr. Gates has acknowledged that the chiefs have worries about open gays in the ranks. That is one reason he ordered the study to see what impact the significant social change would have on readiness and unit cohesion — the bonding of war fighters.
The study, he said, "is precisely so we can understand not just the views and concerns of the chiefs, but of our military people and their families. And the impact on unit cohesion, on morale, on retention, so we understand what these things are so we get some facts into this debate. Or at least some data that we think is reliable and objective."
Last week, Mr. Gates defended the need to study the issue first. He also said he wants to avoid putting more stress on an already stretched force.
"I think this has to be done very carefully and very deliberately," Mr. Gates told Fox News Channel's "On the Record."
"The military culture is a very strong one," he said. "It's a very different culture than a civilian culture. These people do not have choices about who they associate with. They can't just up and walk off the job if they don't like somebody that they're working with. And so we have to take all that into account, it seems to me. And I know people say I'm just delaying or whatever, but I think this is a big change for the military, and it has to be done in a careful way. We have a force that's been under stress for eight years, been at war for eight years. And I don't want to do anything that makes the situation more difficult for those men and women in the fight."
Robert Maginnis, a retired Army officer and conservative commentator who worked on the homosexuality issue while at the Pentagon in 1993, said Adm. Mullen jumped the gun.
"It's critical the chiefs remain objective about the homosexual issue," he said. "Unfortunately, Adm. Mullen abandoned his objectivity when he gave his personal opinion before launching the task force to examine the issue. The chiefs must understand many, if not most, service members are skeptical about [President] Obama's promise to repeal the law. They understand he owes the gay lobby a debt and the military is expected to pay the price."
But a new poll shows that opposition is waning. The Military Times newspapers reported that a survey shows opposition to open gays in the ranks dropped from 65 percent in 2004 to 51 percent today. The Times surveyed readers via e-mails and questionnaire inserts.
A CBS/New York Times poll this month found that 44 percent of Americans say homosexuals should be allowed to serve openly. They may now serve as long as they keep their sexuality private. However, a poll press release said support dropped compared with a year ago, when 67 percent voiced approval.
When the word "homosexual" is replaced with "gay men and lesbians" in the new poll, the percentage rises to 58 percent who approve.