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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.
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Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 3, 2010

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.

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"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.

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