By Bryan Bender
WASHINGTON _ President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates recently held their first -- if only brief -- one-on-one to plot strategy for how to permit gays to serve openly in the military, we learn today.
"I've had one brief conversation with the president about it at this point," Gates told reporters at the Pentagon this afternoon. As for the substance of the conversation, Gates wasn't talking, but his comments marked the first public acknowledgement that the commander-in-chief and his Pentagon boss have discussed how the controversial "don't ask, don't tell" law might be reversed .
Lifting the ban was an Obama campaign pledge, but his administration has since been extremely tight-lipped about its plans. It has declined to provide a timeline for when it will begin actively taking steps to prepare for a change in policy within the ranks or to lobby members of Congress, many of which remain wary of changing the law.
Obama advisers have privately expressed anxiety about pushing too aggressively for the change so early in Obama's presidency. They cite the experience of President Clinton, who sought to allow gays to serve openly soon after taking office but was forced to agree to the current law after a revolt by top brass and their allies on Capitol Hill.
The "don't ask, don't tell" law permits gays to serve in the military only if they keep their sexual orientation secret. More than 11,000 servicemen and women have been discharged for violating the law.
Support for the law has steadily eroded over the years, particularly after the dismissal of gay military personnel with critical skills needed in the war on terrorism such as knowledge of foreign languages.
Thirty-eight graduates of the US Military Academy at West Point came out on Monday in an effort to educate troops on the need to honor the service of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender troops.
Meanwhile, earlier this month, Democratic Rep. Ellen Tauscher of California proposed legislation in the House of Representatives to lift the ban.
But many hurdles remain. The office of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts says they are still searching for a Republican cosponsor before offering a companion bill in the upper chamber, where observers predict it will be much harder to get approval.
And at the Pentagon, Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, appear to be under orders to take a cautious approach.
"It's a subject that Admiral Mullen and I are discussing in terms of what to do next and how to move forward," Gates said today. "Those discussions are still ongoing."
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.