Gates to McCain: No troop referendum needed on 'Don't ask, don't tell'

The Pentagon shouldn't ask members of the military if they think the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” law should be scrapped because that would amount to a “referendum,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a leading Senate Republican on military matters.

Gates was responding to Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) concerns that a Pentagon working group was not seeking the opinion of service members on whether the ban on gays in the military should be repealed.

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The Pentagon has conducted a yearlong study into the implications of repealing the Clinton-era law. McCain, a key opponent of including a repeal provision in the 2011 defense authorization bill, has criticized the way the Pentagon approached the study, saying it should focus not on how to repeal the law but whether it should be repealed at all.

“I do not believe that military policy decisions — on this or any other subject — should be made through a referendum of Servicemembers,” Gates wrote to McCain in a previously undisclosed Oct. 25 letter. The letter was first released Tuesday in an online post on the Wonk Room blog of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a liberal organization that supports repealing the ban.

The Pentagon confirmed the existence of the letter.

Gates said he instructed the officials conducting the study to obtain input from troops so that Pentagon and military leaders can more “fully understand how a change in DADT policy may impact unit cohesion, military readiness and effectiveness, recruiting and retention, and family readiness.”

“This will ensure that we can properly advise the President and the Congress on the impacts of a repeal and develop an implementation plan that appropriately addresses any such impacts,” Gates wrote to McCain.

Gates assured the Arizona Republican and 2008 presidential contender that the leaders of the working group will provide him and Adm. Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with their “honest assessment of the impact of a change in the policy.

“If implementation would present insurmountable challenges, they will report that to us,” Gates said.

The Pentagon’s study will be publicly released  Nov. 30. The Senate Armed Services Committee will schedule hearings soon thereafter.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the panel’s chairman and McCain’s counterpart, expressed hope this week that hearings into the Pentagon’s report would help passage of the 2011 defense authorization bill with repeal language.

McCain, a former Navy pilot, has promised to fight against a defense policy bill that contains a repeal provision.