- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The debate over gays in the military has driven an extraordinary public wedge between the nation’s highest-ranking military officer and the four service chiefs who collectively make up the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Adm. Mike Mullen, Joint Chiefs chairman, in February first broke with the chiefs of the Navy, Air Force, Army and Marine Corps by endorsing President Obama’s campaign pledge to end the military’s ban on open homosexuals.

The gap widened last week. Adm. Mullen approved a White House deal for Congress to go ahead with a vote on repeal of the law barring openly gay members from the military, rather than waiting for completion in December of a Pentagon study that is seeking the views of troops. Adm. Mullen’s move brought an instant rebuttal from the four chiefs in the form of letters to Congress urging lawmakers not to hold the vote.

In fact, the service chiefs did not see the Pentagon-White House-congressional deal to rush a vote until after the administration announced it May 24, Pentagon officials said.

Retired Air Force Gen. Charles Horner, who opposes lifting the ban, said he has never seen such a significant public split between the chiefs and the chairman.

“The chairman is deeply beholden to the secretary of defense and the president,” said the former four-star officer, who directed the 1991 air war against Iraq. “He is in a tougher position than the service chiefs. And also the service chiefs are more directly concerned with things like readiness and personnel policies. I can see where this split occurs, for understandable reasons.”

Asked whether he had ever witnessed such public disagreement with the four-star officers who run the military, Mr. Horner answered, “No, I have not.”

On Thursday, Democrats in the House and on the Senate Armed Services Committee ignored the service chiefs and voted to repeal the gay ban, likely assuring a bill will reach Mr. Obama’s desk this year.

The breach began in February. Adm. Mullen went before the Senate Armed Services Committee and endorsed repealing the military’s ban, telling Congress it was forcing gay service members to live a lie. Some in the Pentagon were struck by Adm. Mullen’s enthusiastic endorsement, although the Joint Chiefs chairman acknowledged he did not know how lifting the ban would affect combat readiness.

Then came the service chiefs’ congressional testimony. They pointedly refused to endorse a repeal of the 1993 law that led to a policy known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

The chiefs said they wanted to await the Dec. 1 study ordered by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr. said he had “serious concerns” about what a policy of open homosexuality would do to military readiness. Gen. James T. Conway, the Marine Corps commandant, said he was flatly opposed to lifting the ban.

As repeal advocates worked to line up floor votes before the November elections, an even deeper split emerged. Mr. Gates and Adm. Mullen had written to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat, stating that they “believe in the strongest possible terms” that the impact study should be completed before any votes.

That position put them in line with the service chiefs. But then came the Gates-Mullen flip-flop.

Pressed by the White House, the two leaders endorsed legislation from Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, to vote now, with a delayed start date for letting homosexuals serve openly.

To advocates of the ban, the so-called White House “compromise” was in fact an end run around the service chiefs’ wishes, because once the ban is repealed, it reduces the importance of what the troops say in Mr. Gates’ ongoing study.

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