Mullen and Gates Forcefully Back Repeal of Military’s Gay Ban

February 02, 2010 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen, right, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates at Tuesday's Senate hearing on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (James Berglie/ZUMApress.com) Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen, right, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates at Tuesday's Senate hearing on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (James Berglie/ZUMApress.com)

The Pentagon’s top civilian and military leadership made an unequivocal and at times emotional appeal Tuesday to end the decades-long ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military, and spelled out a year-long process for securing uniformed and congressional support to change the policy.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed his “full support” for President Obama’s call in the State of the Union address to end the so-called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law this year. He announced to the Senate Armed Services Committee that he had asked Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson and Army Gen. Carter Ham to lead a panel studying the implications of repeal across a variety of military concerns: unit cohesion and discipline — the main concern that led Congress to embrace “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 1993; partner benefits; base housing; “fraternization and base conduct;” and others. In addition, Gates said he planned to ask the Rand Corporation, a leading defense think tank, to update its influential 90s-era study of the impact of gay service on unit cohesion.

[Security1]“It is clear to us we must proceed in a manner that allows for thorough examination of all issues” and “minimizes disruption” to a force stressed by two wars, Gates said. The panel will issue its recommendations before the end of 2010, and Gates told the senators he hoped its work would guide the Congress to pass a law overturning “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

But it was Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who set the hearing’s tone. In 1993, when President Clinton attempted to overturn the ban, the uniformed military rejected the effort, particularly Mullen’s predecessor, Army Gen. Colin Powell. (Powell came out last year for “review[ing]” “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”) In 2007, Mullen’s immediate predecessor, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, publicly called homosexuality “immoral” and likened it to adultery as a rationale for keeping the gay servicemember ban in place.

This time, however, Mullen — emphasizing that he spoke for himself and not the service chiefs — firmly and powerfully argued for repeal. “It is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do,” Mullen said. He called it an issue of “integrity,” and said his personal experience and introspection led him to reject a policy that he said forces servicemembers to “lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.”

Several Republicans on the panel, led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the committee’s ranking Republican, blasted President Obama’s decision to end the gay ban and Gates’ decision to announce his support for it before the Johnson-Ham panel has issued its recommendations. Some suggested that Mullen was carrying Obama’s water instead of presenting his own advice. “If it was a trial, perhaps we’d raise the undue-command-influence defense,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).

That drew Mullen’s ire. “I have served with homosexuals since 1968,” the chairman said, raising his voice. “Everyone in the military has… A number of things, cumulatively, for me, get me to this position.” Sen. Carl Levin, the committee’s chairman and a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” enemy, called Mullen’s comments a “profile in leadership.” After the hearing, Mullen tweeted, “Stand by what I said: Allowing homosexuals to serve openly is the right thing to do. Comes down to integrity.”

A Gallup poll from last May found that 69 percent of American adults favor allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly, and that acceptance of open homosexual military service has increased across all surveyed demographics over the past five years. Several close American allies — including those who have contributed to coalition military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan — allow open gay military service, including Australia, Israel, the U.K., France, Denmark, Italy, Canada, the Czech Republic and Spain. When asked, Mullen said he was unaware of any problems related to such service that impeded coalition efforts in either war.

Gates signaled that he was disinclined to take unilateral steps to mitigate the enforcement of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” contrary to a piece in Tuesday’s Washington Post. “We obviously recognize that this is up to Congress,” Gates, adding that it was “critical this matter be settled by a vote of the Congress.” Still, the Servicemembers’ Legal Defense Fund, which advocates for the rights of gay servicemembers, said yesterday it had noticed a 30 percent drop in “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” enforcement cases during the first year of the Obama administration.

Congressional repeal is far from certain. Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), one of the few Iraq veterans serving in Congress, has introduced a bill in the House that would repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and claims the support of more than 180 representatives. Yet Rep. Ike Skelton, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is opposed to repeal. Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Penn.), a retired Navy admiral who is running for Senate in Pennsylvania, urged Obama not to wait for Congressional action and urged him to issue an executive order halting “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” enforcement. “In a time of war, we cannot lose any more troops that we depend on to keep our country safe,” Sestak said in a statement emailed to reporters.

Murphy is 36 years old and Skelton is nearly 80. The difference in their attitudes is reflective of what Paul Rieckoff, president of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, called a “generational shift within the military” during a 2007 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “The average 18-year-old has been around gay people, has seen gay people in popular culture, and they’re not this boogeyman in the same way they were to Pete Pace’s generation.” Rieckoff’s quote was cited in a recent anti-”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” article in the military’s influential Joint Forces Quarterly publication. Among the article’s conclusions: “[T]here is sufficient empirical evidence from foreign militaries to anticipate that incorporating homosexuals will introduce leadership challenges, but the challenges will not be insurmountable or affect unit cohesion and combat effectiveness.”

Mullen indicated his respect for all points of view on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and took pains to emphasize that he was not speaking for the entire military. But he said he believed there was a “gap between that which we value, the military — specifically the value of integrity — and where our policy is.”