- The Washington Times - Friday, January 29, 2010

The Pentagon is moving ahead with plans to seek a repeal of the law that prohibits gays from serving openly in the U.S. military in what is expected to set off a new debate on the issue.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are scheduled to testify next week before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the effort to change the law on the policy known as “don’t ask, don’t tell” that allows gay service members to remain if they do not disclose their sexual orientation.

“Secretary Gates and Chairman Mullen have been working on and continue to work on an implementation plan for the eventual repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ ” Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told The Washington Times on Thursday. “On Tuesday, they will share with the Congress the path they think needs to be taken to achieve the president’s goal.

The announcement follows Wednesday’s State of the Union address in which President Obama reiterated a presidential campaign pledge to seek the lifting of the ban on gays in the military.

“This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are,” he said.

The president’s comments are expected to kick off a new political debate over whether allowing gays to serve openly in the military will undermine what the services have called “good order and discipline,” or whether morals have changed and openly homosexual service members will be accepted.

The last time the issue was debated was 1993, when President Clinton tried unsuccessfully to allow openly gay men and women to stay in the military. The effort was met with strong resistance from traditionally conservative military leaders and opponents in Congress.

The resulting compromise had Congress pass into law a bar on homosexuality in the military, but Mr. Clinton implemented a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on enforcing the ban.

Both proponents and opponents of the policy change weighed in on the debate Thursday.

Elaine Donnelly, the president of the Livonia, Mich.-based Center for Military Readiness - a public policy organization that supports Congress’ law, but not “Don’t ask, don’t tell” - said the proper way to address this issue is to get rid of the “institutional dishonesty” of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and return to a more forthright barring of gay Americans from serving in the military.

Asked about the pending announcement, Ms. Donnelly said, “If the plan is to simply suspend enforcement without any action by Congress, that would be illegal. It would be an affront to Congress and a constitutional crisis.”

Kevin Nix, a spokesman for the Service Members Legal Defense Network, an advocacy group that seeks the repeal of the ban on gays in the military, said he hoped the announcement was a precursor to a legislative effort to lift the current ban on gays in the military.

“We look forward to hearing about the Gates plan, and do hope they can find a way they can get discharges down to zero,” he said. “But let’s keep our eye on the prize, and that means the Pentagon and the White House together need to work with Congress to get repeal done this year. The ultimate prize is full legislative repeal.”

Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, a key Senate proponent of lifting the ban, will chair the hearings next week. In the House, Rep. Patrick J. Murphy, Pennsylvania Democrat, has introduced legislation that would lift the ban.

Democrats have tried and failed to lift the ban on gays in the military since the 1993 effort by Mr. Clinton.

That policy requires commanding officers to determine whether troops in their charge are gay, but dropped the military’s practice of screening new recruits for sexual orientation.

Mr. Gates said last summer that Pentagon lawyers were looking into how to make the gay ban “more humane.” He said “one of the things we’re looking at is, is there flexibility in how we apply this law?” The flexibility he referred to meant limiting the number of service members discharged from the military after their sexual orientation was discovered.

Ms. Donnelly’s group organized 1,164 retired senior military officers who signed an open letter asking Mr. Obama not to overturn the ban on gays in the military.

Adm. Mullen has avoided expressing his views publicly on whether the ban should be lifted and has said that the military currently follows the law.

Retired Marine Corps Gen. Carl E. Mundy, a former commandant of the Corps, stated in a recent article in The Washington Times that the ban should be kept.

“Our military is engaged in two major conflicts and numerous deterrent operations and performing at consistently high operating tempos,” Gen. Mundy stated. “This is no time to subject it to risky, politically driven social engineering orchestrated to satisfy individual and special-interest demands, instead of enhancing military effectiveness.”

However, some of the military’s institutional resistance to changing the policy appears to be eroding. The highest-profile retired general who has come out in favor of lifting the ban is Gen. John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who implemented the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for Mr. Clinton.

In a statement released Wednesday, he said, “It is time to repeal ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and allow our military leaders to create policy that holds our service members to a single standard of conduct and discipline.”

On the same day, Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said it would be wrong to lift the ban on gays in the military.

“With America’s sons and daughters fighting two wars, I’ve seen no data that would convince me that changing the current law or the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy would make their jobs easier or improve overall military readiness,” he said.

On Thursday, Senator John McCain, Arizona Republican, also came out against lifting the ban on gays in the military.