By Craig Whitlock and Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 3, 2010; A01
The Pentagon's top leaders declared Tuesday for the first time that -- after decades of opposition and equivocation from the armed forces -- they support an end to the ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military.
"Speaking for myself and myself only, it is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do," Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. His words were echoed by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who said the Pentagon is preparing for a repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" law.
That law has stood for 17 years, but the debate over allowing gays to serve openly stretches back much further. For the tradition-bound military, the issue has proved to be intractable, with some officers arguing that the integration of openly serving gays would demoralize fellow troops, even as critics of "don't ask, don't tell" insisted that military service should be a civil right.
Despite the remarkable shift in position by the Pentagon's leaders Tuesday, there remained serious questions about whether Congress and the White House are ready to keep pace.
A House bill that would overturn "don't ask, don't tell" has 187 co-sponsors, but Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), a powerful committee chairman, opposes it and has not let it come up for a vote.
The Senate, which invited Gates and Mullen to testify Tuesday, is moving cautiously. Worried that they lack the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster, Senate leaders said they might try to add a temporary moratorium on discharges of gay service members to a defense spending bill, whose passage would require only majority approval.
President Obama said in his State of the Union address last week that he wants to work with Congress to repeal the law, but he has resisted pleas by gay rights groups to sign an executive order that would instantly mandate a change. On Tuesday, Vice President Biden promised to end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy by the end of the year.
Speaking on MSNBC, he also defended the administration against critics who have questioned why the issue has become pressing now.
Richard Socarides, a Clinton White House official who served as an adviser on gay issues, predicted that Congress would take its cues from the military and eventually vote to allow gays to serve in the open. Mullen's public statement, in particular, he said, will influence lawmakers.
"It was highly significant, coming in a very historic setting and from the highest-ranking military man in our government, in uniform," Socarides said. "I found it quite compelling and an eloquent statement."
Mullen, 63, told senators that he had knowingly served with gays since 1968, when he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, and that he thought it was wrong that they were forced to hide their sexual orientation.
"No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens," he testified.
"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.