Gates warns against gambling on 'don't ask' repeal

Defense Secretary Robert Gates appealed to senators Thursday to repeal the 1993 "don't ask, don't tell" law by the end of the year, arguing that lawmakers must act quickly if they hope to lift the gay ban before the courts take a more abrupt approach to ending the policy.

Speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee during the first of two days of hearings on the law that prohibits openly gay individuals from serving in the military, Gates stressed the importance of a "well-prepared and well-considered implementation" of a repeal of the policy.

"Given the present circumstances, those that choose not to act legislatively are rolling the dice that this policy will not be abruptly overturned by the courts," Gates said, reiterating his statements to reporters on Tuesday in an apparent message to Senate Republicans who have balked at efforts to overturn the law this year.

The hearing comes just two days after the Pentagon released a report detailing the findings in a months-long review of how to implement a repeal of the law. The review found that roughly 30 percent of military personnel -- but between 40 and 60 percent of those in ground combat units -- have concerns about repealing the law.

In urging the Senate to act on a repeal of the law this year, Gates stressed that the findings demonstrate that two-thirds of the force do not object to ending the gay ban and that the repeal would not be a traumatic change within the military.

The Senate could consider during the lame duck a provision in the Senate Armed Services Committee's version of the fiscal 2011 defense authorization bill that would require the White House and Pentagon to certify that repealing the law will not affect unit cohesion, military readiness or troop morale. The repeal would take effect 60 days after certification.

The House passed identical language in May, but the defense measure has been stalled for months in the Senate amid concerns about "don't ask, don't tell" and other issues.

"The requirement for the certification by the president, secretary of Defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs is a key element of this legislation as it ensures that a repeal of this policy would be conducted in an orderly manner with adequate opportunity to prepare for change," Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said Thursday.

Pentagon counsel Jeh Johnson, who led the review along with Army Gen. Carter Ham, said the legislation before Congress would allow the repeal to be "done on our terms and on our timetable."

Gates has refused to speculate on how long he believes the repeal of the law would take to implement. But he said Thursday he would not sign off on the certification until any training is completed and the service chiefs - many of whom have expressed reservations about allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly -- are comfortable that lifting the ban would not have an affect on unit cohesion or combat effectiveness.

But Armed Services ranking member John McCain, R-Ariz., bristled Thursday at the limited time Congress has had to review the report before the administration wants it to act on the law.

In his opening statement, McCain said the military would be able to implement a repeal of the law, if required by Congress to do so. But he criticized the report for not weighing whether the law should be repealed.

"What I want to know, and what it is the Congress' duty to determine, is not can our armed forces implement a repeal of this law, but whether the law should be repealed," McCain said. "Unfortunately, that key issue was not the focus of this study."

The question of whether the law should be repealed is one that "must be answered carefully, deliberately, and with proper consideration for the complexity of this issue and the gravity of the potential consequences for our military and the wars in which we are engaged," McCain said, stressing that he and his staff are still reviewing 1,500 pages on the issue provided this week by the Pentagon.

Gates acknowledged that repealing the law by the end of the year "would be expeditious." But he again stressed that the likelihood of action on the issue within the judicial system injects a sense of urgency.

Gates, who initially did not want Congress to consider legislation until the review was completed, said the report is "pretty stark, pretty clear in its conclusions. Agree or not with it, I think it's pretty straightforward."

McCain also criticized the breadth of the survey of military personnel, saying the respondents represent only 6 percent of the entire force of 2 million active-duty and reserve personnel. Gates has said the survey is the most extensive in the military's history, in which 115,000 troops and spouses responded to 400,000 questionnaires -- a 29 percent response rate.

"I find it hard to view that as a fully representative sample set, but I am nonetheless weighing the contents of this report on their merits," McCain said. "What appears clear at this time is that the survey and anecdotal data underlying this report do not lead to one unequivocal conclusion, which is no surprise considering the complex and difficult nature of this issue."

Sen. James Webb of Virginia, the only Democrat on the committee who voted against the "don't ask don't tell" repeal during a closed-door markup in May, Thursday called the review "an incredible piece of work" that was conducted "without politicizing the men and women in uniform."

Webb, a former Navy secretary who is now chairman of the Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, did not explicitly say he supported overturning the law. But he called the report "probably the most crucial piece of information that we have in terms of really objectively moving forward."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec