Sec. Gates moves deliberately on 'don't ask, don't tell'

In a letter to Congress, Gates and Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen say they're sticking to their plan for review. This angers activists and lawmakers pushing for early repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell'.

By , Staff writer

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    From left to right, Petty Officer Autumn Sandeen, Lt. Dan Choi, Cpl. Evelyn Thomas, Capt. Jim Pietrangelo II, Cadet Mara Boyd and Petty Officer Larry Whitt, handcuffed themselves to the fence outside the White House during a protest for gay-rights last month.
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Defense Secretary Robert Gates has reiterated his pledge to carefully study how repeal of the controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” law would work.

But his letter to members of Congress Friday immediately angered gay rights advocates who fear the administration isn’t moving fast enough to repeal the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D), of Missouri, who does not currently support repeal, had sought the assurance from the Pentagon that it would oppose legislative efforts to repeal the law this year.

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Some lawmakers on Capitol Hill are pushing for intermediate steps toward repeal, for example, creating a moratorium on discharges under the law. Such efforts concern Democrats like Mr. Skelton who are reluctant or at best on the fence about repeal.

“Our military must be afforded the opportunity to inform us of their concerns, insights and suggestions if we are to carry out this change successfully,” Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote to Skelton.

Pentagon officials have begun to study how repeal would work, talking to active-duty service members, both gay and straight, and preparing surveys to take the pulse of a broader swath of the military.

Gates wants Pentagon chief legal counsel Jeh Johnson and Gen. Carter Ham, who commands US Army forces in Europe – to report back to him by December.

Gates hasn’t revealed his personal views on repealing don’t ask, don’t. But he supports President Obama’s pledge to repeal the law, which went into effect in 1993.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said his boss does not want Congress to rush to change the law until after more is known about how it would be done and what troops think about it.

“He is vehemently opposed to it,” Mr. Morrell said Saturday, referring to early efforts to change don’t ask, don’t tell.

Although the December timeline for the review hasn’t changed, the Gates letter prompted advocates to question the administration’s commitment to repeal.

“It’s time for the president and commander in chief to speak clearly and frankly on this issue,” said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an group advocating for repeal in Washington, in a statement. “The commander in chief sounds like he is deferring to his Defense Secretary, to a House Chairman who opposes him on repeal, and to his political operatives.”

The White House issued a statement Friday evening, saying that the administration’s commitment to repeal is “unequivocal” and that it only wants to ensure that repeal is done right.

There is no consensus within the military on this controversial issue.

While some believe it is likely inevitable under the Obama administration, other senior officers, including Gen. James Conway, Commandant of the Marine Corps, believe now is not the right time to repeal the law while the military is immersed in two wars. Conway, who has been the most vocal, is due to retire this fall.

Adm. Mullen, however, has said that repeal is “the right thing to do.”

Related:

Pentagon eases 'don't ask, don't tell' law

Americans support 'don't ask, don't tell' repeal, new poll finds

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