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Obama seeks assessment on gays in military

No rush to repeal 'don't ask, don't tell'

By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / February 1, 2009
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WASHINGTON - The Obama administration is telling the Pentagon and gay-rights advocates that it will have to study the implications for national security and enlist more support in Congress before trying to overturn the so-called "don't ask, don't tell" law and allow gays to serve openly in the military, according to people involved in the discussions.

They said Obama, who pledged during the campaign to overturn the law, does not want to ask lawmakers to do so until the military has completed a comprehensive assessment of the impact that such a move would have on military discipline. Then, the president hopes to be able to make a case to members of both parties that overturning the 1993 law would be in the best interest of national security.

Obama is hoping to avoid the missteps of the Clinton administration when it tried to open the ranks to gays and lesbians, only to be confronted by fierce resistance from lawmakers and commanders. Early in his presidency, Bill Clinton signed an order allowing gays to serve but was forced to back off. A compromise made it illegal for gays to serve openly, but also restricted investigations into service members' sexual behavior.

"The Clinton experience makes a lot of folks [in the administration] apprehensive," said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Fund, which represents gay military personnel discharged under the current policy. Sarvis, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, recently met with Obama advisers on the subject.

At the Pentagon, officials say they have been told not to expect the administration to seek to lift the ban quickly. One senior officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press, said staff officers for Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have been told it will be several months at the earliest - possibly not even this year - until the top brass will be formally asked to weigh in on a change in policy.

And even then, he said, the military has been assured it will have wide latitude to undertake a detailed study of how a change in the policy would affect the military.

Mullen told reporters earlier this month that he is aware of the president's "intent to do this," but "there are no more specifics with respect to when." When the time comes, he said, he will give the president "my best military advice" on "the impact of what a potential change could be."

During the campaign, Obama signaled his intention to allow gays to serve openly in the military, but did not commit to any timetable.

Last April, Obama told the Advocate, a national gay and lesbian newsmagazine, that he believes there is "increasing recognition within the armed forces that [don't ask, don't tell] is a counterproductive strategy."

As recently as Jan. 15, his spokesman made Obama's ultimate intentions clear. "You don't hear politicians give a one-word answer much," Obama's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, responded when asked whether the new president would take action to overturn the 1993 law. "But it's 'Yes.' "

But in addition to winning over the military, Obama and allies in Congress will also have to convince lawmakers in both parties that reversing the policy is necessary, according to several Capitol Hill sources involved in the deliberations. Only legislation approved by the House and Senate and signed by the president can reverse "don't ask, don't tell."

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts and a senior member of the Armed Service Committee, is preparing to introduce legislation to lift the ban, but not until he can get a Republican co-sponsor, according to a congressional aide. The aide said Kennedy's office is lobbying several GOP colleagues to join him, including Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, John McCain of Arizona, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Some powerful members of his own party also appear unconvinced.

"I still think we have significant issues with a lot of the Midwestern Democrats being on the fence," the aide said, adding that some Democratic senators are considered "shaky." Some of those include Evan Bayh of Indiana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, and Ben Nelson of Nebraska - all representing states with significant conservative constituencies. All three declined to provide their views.

The House of Representatives, with a larger Democratic margin than the Senate, is considered more likely to vote for overturning the current law when a companion bill is introduced by Representative Ellen Tauscher, Democrat of California, whose office confirmed that she is drafting legislation.

Still, Democratic boosters in the House face hurdles of their own. For example, Representative Ike Skelton of Missouri, the chairman of the powerful Armed Services Committee that would have to vet any such legislation, "isn't there yet," said the congressional aide.

Lauren Dealy, a spokeswoman for the committee, said Skelton supports "don't ask, don't tell" but added that he also believes the panel has a responsibility to reassess the policy at some point.

In the meantime, longtime opponents of repealing "don't ask, don't tell" are preparing to fight any efforts to allow gays to serve openly. Elaine Donnelly, president of the conservative Center for Military Readiness, has testified before Congress on the issue and says that open homosexuality in the military would severely weaken discipline. "Such a policy would impose new, unneeded burdens of sexual tension on men and women serving in high-pressure working conditions," Donnelly said in an interview.

"I think the burden of proof is on those who say the [don't ask, don't tell] law should be repealed," she added.

Advocates for lifting the ban say such arguments are outdated because national attitudes have changed considerably since the law was passed.

And supporters of lifting the ban are arming themselves with a different argument they hope will tip the scales: that allowing gays to serve openly will improve the military.

Government reports show that many of the servicemembers who have been discharged under the policy had critical skills, such as foreign-language proficiency, that are in short supply for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - a point Obama raised in his April interview with the Advocate.

Gay-rights groups also point to research by the University of California, Los Angeles that suggests allowing gays to serve openly would draw tens of thousands of additional recruits - patriotic Americans who have not enlisted because the current policy is perceived as hostile to gays.

To help make their case they have also enlisted more than 100 retired generals and admirals who say the law should be changed.

But Nathaniel Frank, a researcher at the Palm Center, a think tank at the University of California, Santa Barbara that has studied the issue, believes there is good reason for the Obama administration to move cautiously on the issue that harmed Clinton's relationship with the military. Yet Frank also said waiting too long could jeopardize the entire effort: "A delay could let opposition fester and build."

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