The decision of whether gays and lesbians should serve openly in the military strikes at the core of the integrity of the military itself. The top military advisor to President Barack Obama told senators on Tuesday, Feb. 2, that the integrity of the institution is harmed when soldiers are forced ''to lie about who they are'' -- a dramatic change from the comments of military leaders when the matter was last considered by Congress in 1993.
The Final Push
(Photo by Illustration by Scott G. Brooks)
It was a striking moment as Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, evenly and forcefully explained to the Senate Armed Services Committee what steps the Pentagon would take to bring an end to the ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' policy that came from the 1993 hearings.
Still, despite the statement from Mullen -- supported by a similar statement from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates -- many advocates pushing for repeal of the policy left Tuesday's hearing with more questions than answers.
No one, however, left the hearing with any doubt about Mullen's position or sincerity.
When Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) admonished Mullen that he ''shouldn't use [his] power to in any way influence the discussion'' on ending the policy in place since 1993, the admiral said simply, ''This is not about command influence. This is about leadership.''
The exchange happened about 40 minutes into the hearing, which came about as a part of the military's budget testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. It was also one of the clearest signs of the ''changed times'' referenced throughout the hearing. Mullen explained his reasons for supporting an end to ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' in strong and personal terms -- speaking over Sessions several times to do so.
In his opening statement, Mullen said that, in his opinion, the core problem with a policy prohibiting gay and lesbian soldiers ''comes down to integrity -- theirs as individuals and ours as an institution."
That sentiment was echoed, though in less personal terms, by Obama's secretary of defense, Robert Gates, who also served in the same role for the last two years of President George W. Bush's administration.
Referencing the president's declaration in the State of the Union address on Jan. 27 that he would work with Congress and the military to repeal the policy this year, Gates said, ''I fully support the president's decision.'' In comments that later drew criticism from several Republican members of the committee, he went on to say that the Pentagon's planned efforts discussed at the hearing are ''not whether the military prepares to make this change, but how we best prepare for it.''
In announcing the ''how,'' Gates detailed ''a high-level working group within the department that will immediately begin a review of the issues associated with properly implementing the repeal of the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy.''
Gates said, ''The mandate of this working group is to thoroughly, objectively and methodically examine all aspects of this question and produce its finding and recommendations in the form of an implementation plan by the end of this calendar year.''
The timing didn't make sense to some, including Lt. Col. Dan Choi, the West Point graduate who faces discharge under the policy for announcing that he was gay on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show.
Citing military need and civil rights as reasons to end the policy, Choi remarked, ''By saying that it will take a long time, that's changing the subject. … There's still racist people in our military, there's still sexist people in our military. If you're really thinking in terms of national security, then you say we are bleeding right now. Let's stop firing people.''
The executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, Aubrey Sarvis, agreed: ''I think they can get it done in this Congress -- before the end of this year.''
Rea Carey, executive director of National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, agreed though she noted that she saw the hearing as a step in the right direction. ''We have called on the president to find a way for people to serve openly, and it appears he is trying, though we are not satisfied with the length of this timeline.''
GOProud's executive director, Jimmy LaSalvia, was less charitable.
''Talk about a political sleight of hand. Instead, of telling us how he will repeal the discriminatory 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy, President Obama and his administration is putting together a group to study how to implement a policy the president hasn't lifted a finger to pass,'' said LaSalvia. ''It is time for this administration to walk the walk, not just talk the talk, on 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' repeal.''
Also dissatisfied with the timeline was Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the ranking Republican member of the committee. He said that during a time of war, ''We should not be seeking to overturn the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy.
''Many gay and lesbian Americans are serving admirably in the Armed Forces, even giving their lives. … I honor their sacrifice and I honor them,'' he said, immediately proceeding to discuss the findings made by Congress in 1993 when passing the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy. McCain highlighted concerns about ''forced intimacy'' in living quarters and ''unit cohesion.''
He even went so far as to have the 1993 findings inserted in the record of Tuesday's hearing.
To the ears of Richard Socarides, who served in the Clinton White House, this was not what he hoped to hear.
''I was very disappointed in Sen. McCain," Socarides said. "He should know better. Maybe it's a function of the polarized climate we live in, or his having run his campaign. He has a record of being a fair guy, and his comments just sounded kind of whiny.''
Though she didn't call him whiny, Ana Marie Cox, a reporter who traveled with the McCain presidential campaign in 2008, also found the comments to be a change for McCain. During the hearing on Tuesday, she wrote in her live blog at The Awl, ''McCain, honestly, seems to have dug in MUCH harder on this than he was when last I spent time in the back of his bus. He once claimed he'd be farther along in repealing DADT than Obama by now.''
There was not much discussion at Tuesday's hearing of when actual legislation supporting repeal would be pushed forward, a fact noted negatively by supporters of repealing the ban from all sides.
Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) did, however, raise the possibility of a moratorium on military discharges based on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" during the course of the Pentagon review. Levin raised the moratorium repeatedly with reporters after the hearing, calling it ''one likely approach'' that could be taken.
Asked about the possibility of a moratorium vote in Congress, author and longtime gay advocate Michelangelo Signorile said, ''I don't understand why, then, there couldn't just be a vote to repeal. If it's a 'moratorium until we actually end the policy,' that would be fine.''
He continued to press at what he saw as the need for more from the president. ''I still think it's got to be the White House -- Obama -- saying I want to see a vote,'' Signorile said. ''This is the most resolute we've seen him, so that's good.''
Upon the hearing's conclusion, Nathaniel Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire and a senior research fellow at The Palm Center, noted one of the most significant things that did not happen: ''They didn't quite announce the announcement they announced they'd announce.''
And, so far as it went, Frank was right. Although The New York Times had reported over the weekend that some expected ''Mr. Gates to announce in the interim that the Defense Department will not take action to discharge service members whose sexual orientation is revealed by third parties or jilted partners, one of the most onerous aspects of the law,'' no such announcement came.
Instead, Gates said he has ''directed the department to quickly review the regulations used to implement the current 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' law, and within 45 days present to me recommended changes to those regulations that, within existing law, will enforce this policy in a fairer manner.''
Referencing the preliminary review he called for this past year on the topic, Gates said, ''[W]e believe that we have a degree of latitude within that existing law to change our internal procedures in a manner that is more appropriate and fair to our men and women in uniform.''
Gates said that the 45 days would allow for ''a final detailed assessment of this proposal before proceeding.''
In his tête-à-tête with Sessions, Mullen expanded on his opening statement, telling the Republican senator, ''It does go to a fundamental principle with me: Everybody counts. Part of the struggle, back to the institutional integrity aspect to this … and putting individuals in a situation that every single day they wonder whether today is going to be the day. And devaluing them in that regard just is inconsistent with us as an institution.
''I have served with homosexuals since 1968. Sen. McCain spoke to that in his statement. Everybody in the military has, and we understand that. So, it is a number of things which cumulatively, for me, personally, get me to this position.''
Joe Solmonese, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, noted the changed spirit at the hearing, saying, ''When the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense, who also served under President Bush, direct the military to mitigate the pace of discharges while moving toward implementation, we know that 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' is on its way out.''
Even Nathaniel Frank noted the power of Mullen's statement. ''I was very heartened by hearing Adm. Mike Mullen … saying that the policy should end. That was a very strong statement."
Socarides wrote in The Wall Street Journal this past week of ''Mr. Obama's oversensitivity to a dwindling minority of bigots on this issue.'' After Tuesday's hearing, though, Socarides said, ''I feel a lot better. I think they've done the right thing," noting ''they've certainly taken a long time to get to this point … but both Adm. Mullen and Secretary Gates did a good job today. They made a compelling case for why gays should be able to serve openly in the military.
''As a practical matter, today was pretty much the end of this policy," he continued. "It may not be the end of the end, but it is not merely the beginning of the end. We're getting pretty close.''
The closeness was apparent from the comments of the Democratic senators, who were nearly universally supportive of the possibility of a repeal. Also supportive were Senators Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine).
The only Democrat to express any concern was Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) -- who served as secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan -- who would only say he was supportive of ''an examination of the current law'' and noted that the review would answer the question, ''What are the perils of undoing this law?''
Stonewall Democrats President Michael Mitchell said, ''Three-quarters of the American public supports this.'' Of the possibility of losing some Democratic support, he said, ''Those Democrats need to get in line and do what's right for America and the military, because I really do believe it's right for both.''