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Gates and Mullen: Repeal DADT

Gates and Mullen: Repeal DADT

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Defense secretary Robert Gates, chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen, and the cochairs of the Pentagon's working group study delivered a uniformed opinion at a Senate hearing Thursday that "don't ask, don't tell" should be repealed before the end of the year.

Admiral Mullen told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that his personal opinion that repeal was "the right thing to do" was now his professional opinion after reviewing the Pentagon's comprehensive study.

"Back in February, when I testified to this sentiment, I also said that I believed the men and women of the Armed Forces could accommodate such a change. But I did not know it for a fact," Mullen said. "Now I do."

Secretary Gates added what has become a familiar refrain from him: "I believe this has become a matter of some urgency because, as we have seen this past year, the judicial branch is becoming involved in this issue and it is only a matter of a time before the federal courts are drawn once more into the fray."

Later in the hearing Gates added that a court imposed end to the policy would give the military "zero time to prepare" and called that scenario "a very high risk to the force."

Gen. Carter Ham, a cochair of the study group, followed Gates's lead when he was asked whether he personally believed the law should be repealed by Sen. John McCain, the ranking minority member on the committee and a key detractor of repeal.

General Ham, who has expressed reservations in the past about ending the policy, said that he was personally "very concerned about the timing of the courts."

In light of that, Ham told McCain, "Yes sir, I think it is time to change."

Committee chair Sen. Carl Levin asked Ham, who currently commands the Army's forces in Europe, whether he believed he could implement repeal if the Senate were to overturn the policy.

"Mr. Chairman, I'm confident that I can," Ham responded.

Jeh Johnson, general counsel at the Department of Defense and a cochair of the study, underscored fears of sudden judicial action with his professional opinion as an observer of the courts.

"There is a trend that is taking place since the Lawrence decision that we need to be mindful of," Johnson said of the fact that judges have grown increasingly likely to side with gays and lesbians since the Supreme Court overturned sodomy laws nationwide in 2003.

Republican senators fixated repeatedly on the fact that the study never specifically asked whether service members believed the policy should be changed.

But Gates called taking a referendum on a policy change "a very dangerous path."

"I can't think of a single precedent in American history of doing a referendum of the forces on a policy issue," he said, responding to a question from GOP senator Roger Wicker. "That's not the way our military has ever worked."

GOP senator Susan Collins, who voted for repeal in committee last spring but joined a Republican filibuster of the larger defense authorization bill in September, noted that the military does not make a habit of polling the forces for their opinions.

"I would point out that our troops are not asked whether they should be deployed to Afghanistan, they're not asked whether we should have a war in Iraq, they're generally not asked," Collins said.

GOP senators also pounded on the fact that of the 400,000 troops solicited for their views on the policy change, only 28% responded to the survey the working group conducted.

But Mullen rebuffed the assertion, saying "it was an extraordinarily positive response" and "more than statistically significant in all the key categories."

Democratic senator Jim Webb agreed with Mullen. Webb explained that he had originally voted against attaching the repeal measure in committee because he "felt very strongly that it was important to listen to the people who are serving, to consider their views."

"This is really in my view, an incredible piece of work," Webb said of the 343-page study. "This report is probably the most crucial piece of information that we have in terms of really objectively moving forward as to how to address the law."

Overall, Mullen was a uniquely steady, firm, and forceful voice on the necessity of changing the law.

"I find the argument that war is not the time to change to be antithetical with our own experience since 2001," Mullen said in his opening statement. "War does not stifle change, it demands it. It does not make change harder, it facilitates it."

At the close of his statement, he said, "For more than 40 years, I have made decisions that affected and even risked the lives of young men and women. You do not have to agree with me on this issue. But don't think for one moment that I haven't carefully considered the impact of the advice I give on those who will have to live with the decisions that advice informs. I would not recommend repeal of this law if I did not believe in my soul it was the right thing to do."

Repeal advocates were overwhelmingly positive about the developments of the day.

Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said he was most impressed by "the unity of the senior military leadership in their recommendation to act in the lame-duck."

"Senator McCain, as much as he tried, was unable to have any break of ranks among Gates, Mullen, Ham, and Johnson," he said.

But Friday morning may have a very different tone when the service chiefs of the military branches will fill the same hearing room with their opinions. The chiefs have all expressed their opposition to repeal over the course of hearings in the spring and summer.

"The service chiefs will likely express less enthusiasm for a change in this policy as well as some creative interpretation and cherry-picking of the report data," said Alex Nicholson, executive director of the Servicemembers United. "But at the end of the day, I would expect them all to strongly agree that their respective branches are more than capable of handling and effectively managing the implementation of this policy change."

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