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Military scaling back 'don't ask, don't tell'

By Craig Whitlock and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 2, 2010; A04

President Obama's top defense officials will tell the Senate on Tuesday that the military will no longer aggressively pursue disciplinary action against gay service members whose orientation is revealed against their will by third parties, sources say.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen also are expected to announce the creation of a group to assess how to carry out a full repeal of the decades-old "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which requires gay soldiers to keep their sexual orientation secret.

But Gates and Mullen are also expected to tell senators that it could take years to integrate gay men and lesbians fully into the military, defense officials said. Two appointees will be named to oversee a group that will draw up plans for integrating the armed forces, according to sources familiar with the Pentagon's deliberations on the subject. The planning effort is expected to take up to a year.

Among the issues to be addressed by the group: whether gay soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines will face any restrictions on exhibiting their sexual orientation on the job; whether the Pentagon will be obligated to provide for their domestic partners; and whether straight military personnel could be compelled to share quarters with gays.

"I don't think anyone is underestimating the seriousness of the issue, or the complexity of it," said a senior military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because Gates and Mullen had yet to testify.

The remarks before the committee are part of the administration's effort to follow through on Obama's pledge in last week's State of the Union address to end the policy.

"This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are," Obama said.

Last summer, Gates asked the Pentagon's legal counsel whether the military could ignore allegations made by snitches, civilians or other third parties. Under such a scenario, gay military personnel would face discharge only if they themselves declare their sexual orientation.

Despite persistent objections in some corners, the Pentagon's senior leaders have largely come to terms with Obama's stance on the issue and are operating under the assumption that the law banning gays from serving in the military will be repealed, Pentagon officials said.

But leaders of some gay rights groups said they fear that the Pentagon will drag its heels and insist on a years-long grace period for making any changes.

"I believe Gates and Mullen will announce a protracted process," said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a District-based group that advocates for an end to "don't ask, don't tell." "Will this just be the old, classic Washington way of doing business?"

Gay rights groups have also complained that the Pentagon is moving too slowly to ease enforcement of the third-party dismissals, noting that Gates asked the Defense Department lawyers for advice last summer but has not acted since then.

White House and Pentagon officials declined to comment about Tuesday's testimony. "Stay tuned," Gates told reporters.

Figures released Monday show that 428 people were discharged from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines last year for violating the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. The total is about one-third lower than in 2008, when 619 people were discharged.

Tuesday's testimony will represent the first significant hearing on the 1993 policy in more than a decade, officials said. Congressional sources said the debate on the issue this year could come as part of the overall defense authorization bill that lawmakers will consider this spring.

With Obama's declaration that he wants legislation this year, Democrats on Capitol Hill are under pressure from gay advocacy groups to confront the divisive policy. One source close to Senate Democrats said repealing the policy as part of the larger defense bill would make it more difficult for opponents to defeat.

A spokesman for Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), Armed Services Committee chairman, said there is no firm plan to use the authorization bill as a vehicle for the change.

As a candidate for president, Obama said repeatedly that he would end "don't ask, don't tell." But his decision to pursue congressional legislation has angered some activists, who had urged him to take unilateral action.

Even before Obama took office last year, his administration's top officials were signaling that would not happen while the president was focused on the country's economic collapse. But even then, they reiterated that the president would make good on his promise.

"You don't hear politicians give a one-word answer much. But it's 'Yes,' " press secretary Robert Gibbs said in January of last year.

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