Defense secretary addresses concerns over repeal of ban on gays in military

By reuters
Saturday, May 29, 2010; A02

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates sought Friday to ease concerns among U.S. troops about a legislative repeal of the military's ban on openly gay men and lesbians, saying that a long, careful review process lay ahead.

Hours later, the House approved a bill containing language aimed at ending the Clinton-era "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

In his first major address to U.S. troops on the politically charged legislation, Gates said he did not expect the Senate to pass a repeal for months, perhaps not until the end of the year.

Even then, President Obama would have to sign the legislation, and the Pentagon would have to give final approval. The latter must await a comprehensive review that includes input from troops.

"Every man and woman in uniform is a vitally important part of this review. We need to hear from you and your families so that we can make these judgments in the most informed and effective manner," Gates said. "So please let us know how to do this right."

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Gates decided to make the video to address "a lot of political posturing and maneuvering on this issue this week."

"He wanted to make it clear that the department's review of how to smartly implement a change in the law is more important than ever, and their participation in it is absolutely critical to its success," Morell said.

The House on Thursday approved an amendment aimed at ending the policy, which allows gays to serve if they keep quiet about their sexual orientation but expels them it if becomes known.

A Senate committee passed a similar measure Thursday, but more legislative hurdles remain.

Despite the activity on Capitol Hill, Gates said, "current law, policies and regulations remain in place, and we're obligated to abide by them as before." That echoed warnings issued this week by gay rights organizations that were concerned that gay and lesbian troops might come out to fellow service members following the votes in Congress.

Recent polls show most Americans support repealing the 1993 ban, as does Obama.

But opponents, including some within the military, question changing the policy during wartime, arguing that it would put added strain on troops stretched by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), who voted against the legislation Thursday in the Armed Services Committee, said it was untimely for Congress to take up the issue when the Pentagon review is still in progress.

"I see no reason to preempt the process that our senior Defense Department leaders put into motion, and I am concerned that many members of the military would view such a move as disrespectful to the importance of their roles in this process," Webb said in a statement.

Republicans, gearing up for congressional elections in November, are rallying around the issue. They have accused Obama of pandering to gay rights advocates and ignoring the pressures on troops.

"Do not let the ongoing political debate," Gates said, "distract you from what is important: our critical mission to defend our country and our duty to uphold the values represented by the uniform you wear."

Washington Post staff writers Ed O'Keefe and Ben Pershing contributed to this report.

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