Not so fast on 'don't ask, don't tell' repeal, say top Pentagon brass

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chair Adm. Mike Mullen have been strong backers of a repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell.' But the heads of the Army, Marines, and Air Force said Friday the repeal could cause problems and should be delayed.

Alex Brandon/AP
The military service chiefs testify on Capitol Hill in Washington Friday during a Senate hearing on the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy. The chiefs are, from left, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey Jr., Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead, Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, and Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp Jr.

The heads of the US Army, Marines, and Air Force recommended against repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" ban on openly gay troops, at least in the short-term, in testimony on Capitol Hill Friday – clearly dissenting from the secretary of Defense and the nation’s top military officer.

The Air Force chief of staff, for instance, said repealing "don't ask, don't tell" could impact military effectiveness. He called some of the assessments endorsed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen on the subject "too optimistic."

The Army chief of staff recommended repealing "don't ask, don't tell" only after America pulled back from its current war footing.

The testimony provided Republican opponents of the repeal with plenty of ammunition. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona suggested that many more hearings on the issue might be needed before Congress makes a decision.

Meanwhile, the testimony marked a setback for Democrats eager to overturn the ban, as well as Mullen and Secretary Gates, who traveled to Capitol Hill this week to “strongly urge” Congress to repeal "don’t ask, don’t tell" – a policy that became law 17 years ago this month. Mullen said it is the right thing to do “for our nation, our military, and our collective honor.”

Service chiefs have their say

Last month, Mullen publicly rebuked the new Marine Corps commandant, Gen. James Amos, for expressing his reservations about repealing the ban, which were based on the fact that marines work and live in close quarters.

But the service chiefs spoke openly about their reservations Friday. Among the service chiefs, only Chief of Navy Operations Adm. Gary Roughhead recommended repealing the ban now.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey, who commanded the war in Iraq before Gen. David Petraeus took over, said in his opening statement that in the near-term repealing the ban “will add another level of stress to an already stretched force.”

What’s more, Casey told the committee repealing the ban would be “more difficult for the Army than the report suggests.”

That said, he added that the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” report, released Tuesday, provides a suitable framework for moving forward, and the Army could implement repeal with “moderate” impact on military effectiveness.

The Marine Corps' Amos expressed a similar opinion. Assimilating openly homosexual troops into the “tightly woven fabric” of Marine Corps units – particularly combat units, he added – has “potential for disruption” within the Corps.

“I do not know how distracting that effort would be nor how much risk it portends,” he told the committee.

Uncertain effect on infantry's 'tightly woven culture'

Nearly half of Army combat units and 43 percent of Marine combat units expressed worries in the Pentagon survey that repealing the ban would affect unit cohesion and effectiveness.

“We asked for their opinions, and they gave it to us,” Amos said. “In the final analysis I’m faced with two questions.”

The first is “could we implement the ban?” The answer, he said, is yes.

The second question, “is should we at this time?” Based on “the very tough fight in Afghanistan,” and the “almost singular focus” of marines on combat today, when coupled with “the necessary tightly woven culture of those combat forces that we are asking so much of at this time,… my recommendation is that we should not implement repeal at this time.”

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz concurred. He does “not agree with the study assessment that the short-term risk to military effectiveness is low,” he said. “That assessment in my view is too optimistic.”

Senator McCain, an opponent of gay troops serving openly in the military, seized on the testimony. “I think it’s pretty obvious,” he said, “that there is significantly divided opinion on this issue. It’s very obvious to me that there is a lot more scrutiny and work to be involved before passing this legislation.”

He hinted that he would like to see many more hearings on the issue before Congress takes up any votes. In 1997, there were some two dozen hearings before "don’t ask, don’t tell" became law, he noted. He added that it would be helpful to “hear from senior enlisted personnel who will bear he brunt of the responsibilities for the training and implementation of any change in the law.”

Support for ending the ban – eventually

But while the majority of the service chiefs said that the time is not right to lift the ban, they added that it could and, some added should, ultimately be lifted.

The Air Force's Schwartz recommend that this take place in 2012 “at the earliest.”

The Army's Casey recommended that repeal should begin “when our singular focus is no longer on combat operations.” At that point, he said, “then I’d be comfortable with implementing repeal.”

The question within the halls of the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, however, is whether the courts will act if Congress defers a decision.

“Those who chose not to act legislatively are rolling the dice that this policy will not be abruptly changed” by the courts, said Gates, adding that such a scenario is one of his “worst fears.”

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