Pentagon conundrum: What if 'don't ask, don't tell' survives?

Adm. Mike Mullen, America's top military officer, says the Pentagon is studying how – not whether – to end the 'don't ask, don't tell' ban on openly gay members. But some lawmakers are balking.

Jae C. Hong/AP
Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen speaks during a lecture at the University of California, Los Angeles Nov. 10. He says the national debate over 'don't ask, don't tell' has been good for the Pentagon.

The nation’s top military officer says regardless of whether Congress passes legislation lifting the ban on openly gay service members, there has been value in the conversation that the prospect has generated among US troops.

“I think it is clearly the first time that we’ve really had this kind of discussion with the military on this subject,” says Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen. “Certainly, it hasn’t happened before.”

What happens next for the "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) law is an open question among military officials. It is widely expected that a Pentagon survey to be released Dec. 1 will find that many troops have little to no concern with lifting the ban. If the nation’s top officer and other senior defense officials support overturning it, then how, many wonder, does the military return to business as usual should Congress not act?

In past months, Mullen has been vocal in his support for overturning current Pentagon policy. “I feel an obligation to lead should this change,” he says. “I find it very difficult to be in an institution that values integrity – and integrity is a cornerstone of the American military – and yet we ask people to come and join us and work every day as a living and sacrificing member of this great military, and lie every day about who they are.”

Not all of the military service chiefs agree on this point, however. The new Marine Corps commandant recently said that he has reservations about lifting the ban – as did his predecessor, Gen. James Conway.

“There is nothing more intimate than young men and young women – and when you talk of infantry, we’re talking about our young men – laying out, sleeping alongside of one another, and sharing death, fear, and loss of brothers,” Gen. James Amos told the Associated Press earlier this month. “I don’t know what the effect of that will be on cohesion. I mean, that’s what we’re looking at. It’s unit cohesion; it’s combat effectiveness.”

Mullen issued a rebuke in the wake of Amos's remarks, the sort of public commentary Mullen was hoping to avoid. “I was surprised at what he said, I’m surprised he said it publicly,” he told reporters.

The idea is that the service chiefs, each with the review results now in hand, will first discuss the matter thoroughly. They have already met in a series of DADT meetings. “I think it’s very important that ... we all come to our conclusions," Mullen says. "What we’ve agreed is to do this privately and to put together our best military advice."

But that advice, and the review, could ultimately run contrary to a new Congress. The Pentagon study focused on how, not whether, to repeal the ban. “What we’ve really done with this review is look at what it would take to implement it," Mullen says. "This is not a review that says, ‘Do you want to or not?’ ”

But the Defense Department may be forced to shelve its current review and launch a new study on how ending DADT would affect troop morale and war-fighting, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona said recently on NBC’s "Meet the Press." “Once we get this study, we need to have hearings. And we need to examine it. And we need to look at whether it’s the kind of study that we wanted.”

Democrats on Capitol Hill are preparing a counterattack, with Senate majority leader Harry Reid vowing to pass the defense bill – and with it the repeal of DADT – during the lame duck session. "Our Defense Department supports repealing 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' as a way to build our all-volunteer armed forces," said Wednesday in a statement. "We need to repeal this discriminatory policy so that any American who wants to defend our country can do so."

Regardless of the decision, Mullen says, the military will carry out the wishes of Congress. “Right now the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ law is in effect. If it changes, we’ll follow that law. If it doesn’t, we will continue to do the same.”

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