By Kerry Eleveld
Originally published on Advocate.com July 12 2010 6:50 PM ET
The Department of Defense held an impromptu late after noon briefing Friday to respond to the coverage and criticism of the poll it released to 400,000 troops last week regarding the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” After providing some basic talking points about the survey, spokesman Geoff Morrell took a little over 30 minutes of questions about the tone and intent of the survey.
The survey includes 103 questions in total and has three sections: The first section gauges the demographic of participants; the second gauges their professional and personal experience in the military; and the third tries to assess how repeal might affect the individual being surveyed.
Morrell defended the survey as “professional” and “the only scientifically supported” way to glean information about how repeal would affect the troops.
But he had no answer for the key question of why the military would poll service members on changing the policy regarding gays and lesbians when it has never polled troops before changing other critical personnel policies, such as integrating the force racially and allowing women to serve in combat positions. Morrell also could not say why questions were excluded about how prior DADT discharges have disrupted unit cohesion, especially since the survey asks respondents whether having openly gay members in their unit would affect unit cohesion.
Below is a partial transcript of the call.
Geoff Morrell’s opening:
I see a lot of stories have been written about [the survey] — I think some of them, at least in their tone and in their titles, have been inflammatory in the worst case, misleading in the best case.
We did not intend for this survey to be shared in such a public fashion.
What we were trying to do was preserve the integrity and credibility of the answers that it elicits from the force, and the outside commentary and indeed the outside pressure from some of the interest groups, frankly, on both sides of this issue is not helpful to this process.
[The survey] is really the only scientifically supported engagement instrument that we have.
The intent of the survey is not [to be] in any way itself a referendum on whether or not there should be a repeal of DADT. That is not the mandate of the working group. The working group has been tasked with studying how you go about implementing a repeal if it were to take place.
We have been working with a very professional, reputable polling firm that produced what we feel to be a credible and professional survey that stands up under scrutiny.
Of the 103 questions, I think there are 10 in total that address those situational privacy scenarios [( as showering with gays and lesbians].
We think it would be irresponsible to conduct a survey that didn’t try to address these types of things. Because when DADT is repealed, we will have to determine if there are any challenges in those particular areas, any adjustments that need to be made in terms of how we educate the force to handle those situations, or perhaps even facility adjustments that need to be made to deal with those scenarios.
We won’t know any of that until we get a sense from the force about their attitudes. It could turn out from the survey that there are far fewer concerns than we are led to believe. Could turn out there are more or different concerns than we had anticipated. But we need this survey and we need people to participate in this survey.
Question and Answer:
Question: Historically, with other integrations, of African-Americans in the military and women serving in combat positions, etc. polling was not done. Why do so in this case?
Morrell: I frankly don’t know if the premise of the question is correct, we didn’t poll previously; polling has come a long way over the years and is a generally accepted wise practice in order to get a sense of attitudes.
We think with an issue that is potentially as volatile as this one ... [inaudible] ... try to strip the emotion out of it and try to strip potential prejudices out of it and try to get very specific questions with specific scenarios, so it’s devoid of a lot of preconceptions.
Isn’t even asking the question about showers homophobic by nature?
We think we it would not be doing as comprehensive a job as the secretary had asked the working group for us not to delve into the issue of privacy concerns. And part of the privacy concerns is in very personal situations, i.e. bathing situations, living situations, socializing situations.
It may turn out that their concerns are not what were indicated in the forums that we’ve participated in. It may turn out they were far less concerned about this than we thought; they may be more concerned about [it]. But we need to find out any potential problems associated with repeal and then determine how we mitigate those problems.
The secretary’s attitude about this is he thinks this change should be made but he’s insisting that it be done smartly. And so we are going to go to extraordinary lengths to make sure we have the best understanding of the attitudes of the force possible. That is why he doubled the size of the survey group. ...
Are you oversampling — is it necessary, is it signaling more concern for the troops’ opinions than is really necessary? [Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asked for the sampling size to be doubled from 200,000 to 400,000.]
This is one of those that the secretary decided based on his own judgment ... and my sense is that he did so out of an abundance of caution, out of an abundance of appreciation for the views of the force.
He wants to make sure that they feel as though their voices have been heard, and I don’t believe that anybody thinks there’s any harm done. I’ve never heard of any harm being done by getting more information rather than less information.
Some people say you’re assuming there will be problems and that’s problematic in itself. What do you say to that?
We aren’t assuming there will be problems. This has been the law now for 17 years or so — we’ve obviously had a great deal of dealings with this issue over the last nearly two decades that this has been the law and with the force over the last several months with these forums and through the online engagements, and we are not creating issues where we believe there to be none.
Do you reject out of hand that the survey is biased?
Absolutely — unequivocally, I reject it as nonsense. This is the work of an incredibly professional survey organization. We would not be disseminating it to our forces in the numbers that we are unless we believed it to be the best vehicle possible to get a scientific sample of the attitudes of the force.
It’s costing us an extraordinary sum of money. It’s taking an extraordinary amount of time and manpower, and it deals with an extraordinarily important issue to this department, to this secretary, and to the president of the United States. We’re not playing games here, guys. We’re trying to figure out what the attitudes or our force are, what the potential problems are with repeal, what the potential opportunities there may be available to us a result of repeal.
What if 49% of the respondents say they have a problem with taking showers with an openly gay or lesbian service member — how will you assess this information? Just getting the number of people who have concerns doesn’t seem like it will lead you in any particular direction.
I’m not a statistician, but there are 103 questions here, and pollsters, based upon the answers, will be able to derive more from the answers than just that there is X number who have issues with the showers [inaudible].
Based upon all the questions that preceded it, demographics, experience and so forth, we’ll be able to get a sense of who it is that’s concerned about this. Are they younger members, less experienced members, is it the older force, are they married? All this will help our collective wisdom about the situation, and then we’ll make judgments — the working group will — and this is where the hard part comes in, about armed with all this information, what will we do when repeal takes place to prepare the force for that? Does it require more education? Does it require more training? Does it require — as I mentioned before — adjustments to facilities?
Who came up with the questions?
This was a collaborative process. We hired a professional firm for a reason. We obviously contributed to this — we had known for months what we were trying to get at. They were very familiar with the working group and what their responsibility is and in a collaborative process, questions were devised.
Were any of the gay rights groups consulted when you put these questions together?
They were not consulted in terms of devising the questions. Obviously, the working group has had interaction with some of the interest groups along the way. We’ve tried to be as transparent and forthright as possible. But they did not sit down with them and devise the questions.
You say the survey is not biased, but the way some the questions are contrived assume that gays and lesbians are not already serving. For instance, if you ask, would you be comfortable showering with someone who is gay or lesbian, there’s already gays and lesbians serving — they’re not open, but they’re there. So people are showering with them. You also use the term homosexual, which is well known among pollsters to have very negative connotations. Who tested this for not being biased — the language as well as the way the questions were conceived?
I don’t think we’ve approached this survey with some sort of naiveté about the prevalence of gays or lesbians in the force. Obviously, this survey is built under the assumption that our force is indeed serving with gay and lesbian service members, and that’s why we ask them about some of their attitudes toward serving with those members. That’s why some of the questions ask them outright if they believe they have served with gay service members — we want to get a sense of how many believe they are serving and how that influences their attitudes and so forth.
The questions about terminology here — it is noted in this survey up front that the term homosexual as well as gay and lesbian is used interchangeably in this survey. I would point out, however, that vast preponderance of the references in this survey to sexuality uses the term gay and lesbian. I think only seven of the references use the term homosexual, and when they do use the term homosexual, it is to elicit a yes or a no answer. It is never to elicit a subjective answer. We are well aware that to some the word homosexual is a loaded term, but it is a term that is in law, in regulation, in policy that has covered this issue for the last 17 years. It is the term that at least some portion of our force is most familiar [with], so we thought it only responsible to use both terms in this survey.
Why isn’t there a question that relates to the impact that DADT discharges have had on current unit morale or cohesion?
I frankly don’t know. I’m sure there’s a good explanation for it, I don’t know. I’m not armed with that information.
What’s the cost of the survey? And how much more did it cost to double the size of the sample?
It cost about $4.5 million. (Editor's note: it's unclear whether this particular cost estimate came from Morrell or the anonymous
DOD official who spoke occasionally throughout the briefing, but this was an
I don’t know how much more it would cost, I doubt it would double the cost. But I frankly don’t think the cost in that respect was an issue for the secretary.
In this case, he has said time and time again, it is better to do this smart than stupid — he is determined to do this smartly.