'Don't ask, don't tell': Repeal signed, sealed, but when will it be delivered?

At signing, Obama says repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell' will 'strengthen our national security.' But the lack of a clear timetable for implementation is already frustrating some gay rights advocates.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama signs the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010, on Dec. 22, at the Interior Department in Washington.

President Obama signed the bill Wednesday to end the 17-year ban on openly gay troops serving in the military, declaring at a White House ceremony that the legislation will “strengthen our national security and uphold the ideals our fighting men and women risk their lives to defend.”

But it remained unclear how long it would take the Pentagon to phase out the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Whether it will be months or the better part of a year is an estimate that the Defense Department is resolutely declining to make.

“I don't think anybody has any idea yet how long this will take,” Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters this week.

The lack of a concrete timetable is frustrating some gay rights advocates who point out that quickly implementing orders is generally a military forte – and question why putting the repeal in place should take much longer than one month.

IN PICTURES: The US Marine Corps

“If leaders set clear deadlines and monitor progress, training can be accomplished quickly,” concluded a study by the Palm Center, a research institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which has advocated for the repeal. “Whatever preparations are ultimately deemed necessary, the Pentagon ought to be able to pull them off faster than it did the implementation of DADT in 1994, which took approximately 40 days.”

Even supporters of the repeal acknowledge, however, that the legislation has only been in effect for a matter of hours.

“Let’s give them a few days to tell us what their timeline is,” says Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center. “The fact of the matter is that if they wanted to, they could repeal immediately. The troops do not have to be trained to interact with gays” – as it’s something they’ve long been doing, he adds – “but let’s see how much time they ask for.”

Education called key

The military argues that the key to a smooth implementation is educating troops about the new law. Once they do this, officials explain – and once Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen have consulted with the heads of the services branches and are confident that the repeal will not harm readiness, recruitment, or retention – they will send a letter to Congress “certifying” that the military is ready.

From that point, “don’t ask, don’t tell” will still be in effect for 60 more days, during which time a soldier who declares his homosexuality technically could still be thrown out of the Army, says Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan.

A move this week by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to add an amendment to the defense authorization bill that would have required the heads of the Marine Corps, Army, Air Force and Navy to also “certify” military readiness was defeated after an objection by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I) Conn., who supported ending the ban.

Critics of the repeal have pointed out that this may be a good idea since there is more resistance to lifting the ban in some service branches than others – roughly 60 percent of Marines in combat units were concerned that the new legislation would affect cohesion in the Corps, according to a Pentagon report released last month.

As a result, some have suggested that the ban be lifted in, for example, the Navy, whose top commander told Congress earlier this month that he supports repeal, before it goes into effect for the Marines. Marine Corps commandant Gen. James Amos told reporters last week that he fears the repeal could be a dangerous “distraction” for combat troops during a time of war.

Senior Pentagon officials say, however, that this is unlikely to happen. Regardless, military commanders emphasize that now that the repeal is law, they will salute their civilian leaders smartly.

'Discipline and loyalty'

“I, and the Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, will personally lead this effort, thus ensuring the respect and dignity due all Marines,” said Gen. Amos in a statement he released following Saturday’s Senate vote to repeal. “On this matter, we look forward to further demonstrating to the American people the discipline and loyalty that have been the hallmark of the United States Marine Corps for over 235 years.”

For his part, Mr. Gates said he is well aware that the White House is watching the Pentagon closely "to ensure that we don't dawdle," he told reporters this month.

Top Pentagon lawyer Jeh Johnson offered his own assessment this month on how long implementation should take. “I think the answer would be not fast, but not drawn out or protracted either. I think that it could become counterproductive for unit cohesion, good order, and discipline if this process were drawn out over an extended period of time.”

IN PICTURES: The US Marine Corps

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