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McCain appears to shift on 'don't ask, don't tell'

By Michael D. Shear
Wednesday, February 3, 2010; A09

Three years ago, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was pretty clear about his stand on the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

A former war hero, McCain said he would support ending the ban once the military's top brass told him that they agreed with the change.

"The day that the leadership of the military comes to me and says, 'Senator, we ought to change the policy,' then I think we ought to consider seriously changing it," McCain said in October 2006 to an audience of Iowa State University students.

That day arrived Tuesday, with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen testifying to senators after President Obama's announcement that he would seek a congressional repeal of the 15-year-old policy.

Mullen called repealing the policy, which bans openly gay men and lesbians from serving, "the right thing to do" and said he was personally troubled by effectively forcing service members to "lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens."

Gates told the Armed Services Committee, "I fully support the president's decision."

In response, McCain declared himself "disappointed" in the testimony. "At this moment of immense hardship for our armed services, we should not be seeking to overturn the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy," he said bluntly, before describing it as "imperfect but effective."

Since losing to Obama in the 2008 election, McCain has become a consistent critic of the president. He also has, for the first time in years, a serious primary fight on his hands.

McCain spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan said her boss has not shifted his position.

She noted that Mullen said repeatedly that he was speaking for himself and not for the military, and she dismissed Gates's testimony because he was expressing the Obama administration's line.

"There has to be a determination from our military leaders that they think it is a good idea to change the policy; then, of course, Senator McCain will listen to them."

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