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Military chiefs: Right move, wrong time

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 4, 2010; A02

Top commanders of the Army, Air Force and Navy highlighted the fissures of a military struggling with how to end "don't ask, don't tell" as they told a Senate panel Friday that they were not convinced it was the right time to end the ban that prohibits gays from serving openly in the armed forces.

A Pentagon report released this week and offered as proof that ending the ban - while not easy - could be accomplished during wartime tells only part of the story, the commanders said. They testified a day after their bosses - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen - made impassioned pleas before the same committee to end the ban before year's end.

All six commanders testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Friday voiced support for ultimately ending the ban and agreed it would be better for Congress to strike it down - giving the military time to retrain troops - rather than the courts, which could mean the military might be forced to act overnight.

But the opinions soon diverged.

Gen. James F. Amos, the Marine Corps commandant , was most critical, warning that integrating openly gay troops into combat units "has strong potential for disruption and will no doubt divert leadership attention away from an almost singular focus of preparing units for combat." He cited a study quoted in the Pentagon report that found most Marine combat troops are opposed or concerned about ending the ban.

"I cannot reconcile, nor turn my back, on the negative perceptions held by our Marines who are most engaged in the hard work of day-to-day operations in Afghanistan," Amos said. "We asked for their opinions, and they gave them to us. Their message to me is that the potential exists for disruption to the successful execution of our current combat mission should repeal be implemented at this time."

Mullen publicly criticized Amos last month for expressing to reporters his concerns about the potential risks of ending the ban.

Ending the ban will be more difficult on Army combat units than suggested by the study, said Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff. The Army would have to closely monitor how officers balance implementing a change in personnel policy while also dealing with the challenges of war, he said. A change in policy would not, however, keep the Army from carrying out its missions, he said.

Amos said the military should wait to lift the ban until "my Marines are not singularly, tightly focused on what they're doing in a very deadly environment."

Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, also suggested waiting, until 2012, "while initiating training and education efforts soon after you take any decision to repeal." The Air Force would successfully implement any changes, he said, but lawmakers should not act now because of current combat pressures.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a leading critic of the Pentagon report and efforts to end the ban this year, agreed with chiefs who said it should be ended eventually. He added that lawmakers also should hear from senior enlisted officers and combat commanders on the issue. McCain, who was combative in exchanges with Gates and Mullen, seemed satisfied with Friday's testimony. "I have always said that I would listen to and fully consider the advice of our military regarding the potential repeal," he said.

The chiefs of the Navy and Coast Guard signaled less resistance to changes now. The Navy could make changes within a matter of months, said Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations. But he noted that the Pentagon study did not fully account for the potential costs associated with expanded benefits for gay troops.

Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also sounded a more hopeful tone, suggesting implementation of a new policy would involve little risk to military effectiveness "even during the high tempo of wartime operations." Transparency and careful training would be crucial to successful implementation, he said.

The chiefs underscored the need for Congress to ultimately act rather than the courts. They also said Gates, Mullen and the report's co-authors fully accounted for their opinions on the matter. And if Congress votes to end the ban and the military implements their decision, "none of us will be shrinking violets on this issue," Cartwright said.

President Obama supports ending "don't ask, don't tell" through legislation this year. But opportunity may be fading in a lame-duck session with a crowded agenda. Language ending the ban is included in a defense policy bill that historically requires two weeks of debate, according to senior Democratic aides in the Senate who are not authorized to speak publicly.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), an active repeal proponent, said he believes at least 60 senators would vote to end the ban. "I think if we spent five solid days on this bill - we came in at 9 in the morning and we worked until 7 or 8 at night, I think it'd be hard for anybody to say . . . that we haven't had opportunity for a good, thorough debate," he said.

In a key pickup for repeal efforts, Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), a member of the Massachusetts Army National Guard, said he supports ending the ban as long as the military properly prepares for the change. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) have said they would support ending the ban if Democrats permitted Republicans to introduce amendments to the defense bill.

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