WASHINGTON -- For the first time the nation's top military officer this afternoon publicly called for the repeal of the controversial Don't Ask, Don't Tell law, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee that forcing homosexuals to lie about their sexual orientation is undercutting the military's prized code of honor and integrity.
Appearing at what at times was a spirited hearing on the 1993 law, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified that he believes gays and lesbians should be allowed to reveal their sexual orientation without the risk of being discharged.
"It is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do," Mullen said. "No matter how I look at this issue I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy that forces men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens."
He added: "To me personally it comes down to integrity, theirs as individuals and ours as an institution. I also believe that the great young men and women of our military can and would accommodate such a change."
Mullen and Robert M. Gates, the secretary of defense, both called on Congress to repeal the current law, but received pointed criticism from Republicans on the committee who pledged to fight to retain the current policy, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
McCain, waiving a letter signed by more than 1,000 retired generals and admirals opposing repeal, said what the Obama administration is proposing would be a "substantial and controversial change to a policy that has been successful."
He raised three main concerns, including what openly gay service would mean for privacy -- especially in combat zones -- how it might affect the military's unique rules and regulations governing personal conduct, and the possible impact on "unit cohesion."
As Congress debates the issue and plans additional hearings later this month, Gates outlined a series of steps the Pentagon plans to take to prepare for the repeal of the law.
-the establishment of a senior working group headed by Jay Johnson, the Defense Department's general counsel, and Army Gen. Carter Ham to outline an implementation plan by the end of this year, including what changes in benefits, living arrangements, and rules on fraternization would be required, as well as gather more detailed views from officers and enlisted troops.
-that the Pentagon has concluded that "we believe we have a degree of lattitude within existing law" and can "raise the bar" for what kinds of allegations lead to an investigation of a servicemembers' sexual orientation, while also permitting more senior officers to authorize such investigations or approve a discharge under the current law.
"We can raise the level of the officer who is authorized to initiate an inquiry," Gates said. "We can raise the level of officer of who conducts the inquiry. We can raise the bar on what constitutes credible information to initiate an inquiry. We can raise the bar on what constitutes a reliable person and on whose word an inquiry can be initiated."
"Overall," he added, "we can reduce the instances in which a servicemember who is trying to serve the country honorably is outed by a third person with a motive to harm the servicemember."
He said that over the next 45 days the Pentagon will work out the details of these new approaches, which the Globe previewed earlier in the day.
Still, Gates also said that even once the law is repealed, the Pentagon would likely need another year to fully implement openly gay service, prompting some members of the committee, including Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, to question whether the Pentagon's timeline is too lengthy.
The House -- where there is already a proposed bill to repeal the law -- and the Senate will have to oveturn the 1993 law for gays to serve openly and it is unclear whether there is sufficient support, particularly in the Senate, where Republicans could try to fillibuster.
Among those who expressed strong opposition today was Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who accused Mullen of inserting "undue command influence" by expressing his support for repeal before the Pentagon working group can complete its work.
However, there appeared to be bipartisan support. Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine expressed preliminary support for changing the law, while Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Indepedent who traditionally votes with McCain on military issues, expressed strong support for lifting the ban.
Lieberman is seen by some advocates as the logical member to sponsor repeal legislation in the upper body.
The panel's chairman, Demcratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigian, told reporters following the hour-long session that he is also considering including a provision in the defense spending bill now before Congress to place a moratorium on the discharge of gays and lesbians until the Pentagon completes its implementation plan and Congress takes up separate legislation to lift the ban.
He said the panel's next hearing on the issue is scheduled for Feb. 11.
Mullen's argument for lifting the ban was strikingly similar to the one made last fall in an article by an Air Force colonel that was published in a scholarly military journal Mullen oversees.
After today's hearing, Mullen drove home his historic stand by posting a brief item to his Twitter acount.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.