Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, left, and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman
of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified Tuesday at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in Washington.

The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The nation’s top two Defense officials called on Tuesday for an end to the 16-year-old “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, a major step toward allowing openly gay men and women to serve in the United States military for the first time in its history.

“No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens,” Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. He said it was his personal belief that “allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do.”

But both Admiral Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told the committee they needed more time to review how to carry out the change in policy, which requires an act of Congress, and predicted some disruption to the armed forces.

Admiral Mullen is the first sitting chairman of the Joint Chiefs to support a repeal of the policy. In 1993, Gen. Colin L. Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs at the time, opposed allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly but supported “don’t ask, don’t tell” as the compromise passed by Congress. Under the policy, gay men and lesbians may serve as long as they keep their sexual orientation secret.

To lead a review of the policy, Mr. Gates appointed a civilian and a military officer: Jeh C. Johnson, the Pentagon’s top legal counsel, and Gen. Carter F. Ham, the commander of the United States Army in Europe. Pentagon officials said the review could take up to a year.

In the interim, Mr. Gates announced that the military was moving toward enforcing the existing policy “in a fairer manner” — a reference to the possibility that the Pentagon would no longer take action to discharge service members whose sexual orientation is revealed by third parties or jilted partners, one of the most onerous aspects of the law. Mr. Gates said he had asked the Pentagon to make a recommendation on the matter within 45 days, but “we believe that we have a degree of latitude within the existing law to change our internal procedures in a manner that is more appropriate and fair to our men and women in uniform.”

As the hearing opened, the committee’s chairman, Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, welcomed the abolition of the policy, saying it had never made sense to him. Its ranking Republican, Senator John McCain of Arizona, said that he was “deeply disappointed” and that the original rationale, endorsed by Congress in 1993, was as sound as ever.

On one thing, they agreed: many gay men and lesbians are serving honorably and effectively in the military today, despite a policy that has driven thousands of others out of the services. But Mr. Levin said the military should act in this matter as it has in others, as a force against discrimination. And Mr. McCain said the military culture was so different from civilian life that the rules for its members, too, must differ.

Mr. Levin cited an overwhelming view on the part of the public, as seen in polls, that the law should change. Mr. McCain said that a thousand retired admirals and generals had signed a petition against change, and that their views reflected the honest beliefs of military leaders as a whole, whatever Admiral Mullen’s personal view.

Mr. Gates said that the review would examine changes that might have to be made to Pentagon policies on benefits, base housing, fraternization and misconduct and that it would also study the potential effect on unit cohesion, recruiting and retention.

For further information, Mr. Gates said he would ask the Rand Corporation to update a 1993 study on the effect of allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly. That study concluded that gay service members could serve openly if the policy was given strong support from the military’s senior leaders.

Mr. Gates and Admiral Mullen were responding to President Obama’s campaign pledge to end “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which the president, after a year of saying of little about it, reaffirmed in his State of the Union address last week.

“The question before us is not whether the military prepares to make this change, but how we best prepare for it,” Mr. Gates told the committee. “We have received our orders from the commander in chief and we are moving out accordingly. However, we also can only take this process so far as the ultimate decision rests with you, the Congress.”

Gay rights groups had grown increasingly angry over the past year that Mr. Obama delayed acting on the policy for his first 12 months in office. But Pentagon officials were reluctant to move forward when they were at crucial points in two wars, and Mr. Obama himself did not want another polarizing debate to distract from his 2009 health care fight.

Admiral Mullen told the committee that although he believed “the great young men and women of our military can and would accommodate such a change,” he did not know for sure. “Nor do I know for a fact how we would best make such a major policy change in a time of two wars,” Admiral Mullen said.

Republicans have already signaled that they are concerned about timing and not eager to take up the issue. “In the middle of two wars and in the middle of this giant security threat, why would we want to get into this debate?” Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader, said Sunday on “Meet the Press” on NBC.

Some advocates of allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly have pointed to an article last fall in Joint Force Quarterly, an official military journal, that found that the several countries that have lifted bans on such open service had seen few harmful effects.

The article, by Col. Om Prakash of the Air Force, cited evidence that in countries where such bans had been lifted, including Australia, Britain and Canada, there had been no “mass exodus” of heterosexual service members and no impact on military performance. Colonel Prakash’s article had been reviewed in advance by Admiral Mullen’s office.

Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, asked the admiral on Tuesday if he was aware of whether the policies of many NATO allies in Afghanistan, allowing open service, had had any deleterious effect.

The admiral said that he had spoken to many of the NATO partners and that they had reported seeing “no impact” on military performance.

Polls now show that a majority of Americans support openly gay service — a majority did not in 1993 — but there have been no recent broad surveys of the 1.4 million active-duty personnel.

A 2008 census by The Military Times of predominantly Republican and largely older subscribers found that 58 percent were opposed to efforts to repeal the policy; in 2006, a poll by Zogby International of 545 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans found that three-quarters were comfortable around gay service members.

General Ham, a veteran of Iraq, is unusual among top military officers for speaking out about his struggles with post-traumatic stress after witnessing the devastation when a suicide bomber blew up a mess tent on an American military base near Mosul, killing 22 people, including 14 United States troops. Mr. Johnson, a former assistant United States attorney in the Southern District of New York, was previously a trial lawyer at the firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.



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