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Pentagon supports ending 'don't ask, don't tell' law for gays in military

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has tapped his chief legal adviser and a four-star Army general to lead a landmark study on how the U.S. military would lift its ban on openly gay service members.

"For me personally, it comes down to integrity -- theirs as individuals, and ours as an institution," he added.

Mullen's remarks contrasted sharply with the Pentagon's position in 1993, when admirals and generals -- including Gen. Colin L. Powell, serving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs -- rebelled against President Bill Clinton's attempt to integrate gays into the military. As a compromise, they supported the "don't ask, don't tell" legislation, which allows gays to serve as long as they hide their sexual orientation.

Republican senators said they worry that a change in the law could undermine morale, disrupt unit cohesion and affect recruiting, especially at a time when the military is fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Has this policy been ideal?" asked Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a Navy veteran. "No, it has not. But it has been effective."

Three years ago, McCain said he would support ending the ban once the military's top brass agreed to do so. But on Tuesday, he said he was "disappointed" with the testimony from Mullen and Gates.

Despite objections from Republicans who said he is acting prematurely, Gates said he had appointed a Pentagon team to study a possible repeal. The team, which will have until the end of the year to finish its work, will be led by Gen. Carter F. Ham, commander of the U.S. Army, Europe, and Jeh C. Johnson, the Pentagon's legal counsel.

Gates cautioned, however, that the military would move slowly and that it would need at least a year beyond that -- until 2012 -- to fully integrate a change.

In the meantime, however, Gates said the Pentagon will determine, within 45 days, whether it has the authority to enforce the current policy more loosely, resulting in fewer discharges. For instance, Gates said he thinks the military could "raise the bar on what constitutes reliable information" about a service member's sexual orientation, ignoring allegations filed by snitches or third parties.

Although Mullen said he supports ending sexual discrimination in the military, he said it is unclear how other members of the Joint Chiefs, as well as the rank and file, would react.

Interviews with military personnel Tuesday suggested that attitudes have gradually changed since 1993, though many were reluctant to speak on the record about the political issue.

"I don't think it is going to make that big a difference," said one company commander who had just returned from leading a brigade in eastern Afghanistan. "You expect people to do their jobs and be competent. We've talked about it in my company of late. But the consensus is that it isn't a big deal."

Military attitudes about gays tend to be divided along generational lines. "You see a clear split between younger and older members of the service," said one social scientist who works for the Army. Older officers are more likely to characterize homosexuality as immoral, the social scientist said.

Much of the recent debate in the military has revolved around how the service might manage social issues, such as same-sex marriage, barracks co-habitation and attendance at military social functions, officers said.

"I think we have all expected this would come in time. My sense is that it isn't a big deal among the other majors I am serving with, and even less so among junior soldiers," said Maj. Niel Smith, an Iraq war veteran who is a student at the Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. "We have become accustomed to the idea that gays have served honorably alongside us for some time."

Staff writers Ed O'Keefe, William Branigin, Shailagh Murray and Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.

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