Pentagon pick says he’ll explore ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ repeal

President Barack Obama’s choice to handle Pentagon personnel issues said Thursday he would explore repealing the ban on openly gay people serving in the military.

Retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Clifford Stanley held back from saying what his recommendations would be to Defense Secretary Robert Gates on the Clinton-era policy known as “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” But he said he would make his recommendation after seeking input from others at the Defense Department as well as outside advisers, Congress and representatives of each military service.

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“It is a very, very challenging subject, one that I know we can get our arms around,” Stanley told the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing Thursday.

“I clearly recognize this is a very sensitive issue,” he added. “It is an issue that I am prepared to address if confirmed. I am entering this discussion with no preconceived notions.”

As the undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, Stanley would lead the effort to implement a new policy.

Stanley did not address whether a repeal of the ban would be included in the legislative package accompanying the Pentagon’s fiscal 2011 budget request.

Aubrey Sarvis, the executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, the leading organization fighting for the repeal, said he was “disappointed” with Stanley’s responses. Sarvis said in a statement that Stanley “punted on several questions regarding ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ ” Thursday morning.

“When given the opportunity by Sen. Mark Udall [D-Colo.] to support his commander in chief’s position to overturn the ban, Dr. Stanley did not do so.

However, as is the case with most nominees, Dr. Stanley did not delve into any of the policy issues in his portfolio. We look forward to Dr. Stanley becoming fully aligned with President Obama on repeal,” Sarvis said.

The Hill recently reported that both the White House and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) back the strategy of using the defense authorization bill to change the policy on gays in the military. Both the Senate and the House Armed Services panels have yet to hold hearings on the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate panel, and Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), the chairman of the House panel, said they would hold hearings on the issue.

If the focus shifts to the change in policy in the next defense authorization bill, any new legislation will come with intense debate in Congress. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the ranking member of the Armed Services panel and Obama’s rival in the presidential election, on Thursday indicated that he did not want to see the policy changed because it has been working well. McCain held the same position during the presidential election.

The move to repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell” could set up a vote on a divisive social issue next year as lawmakers head toward the 2010 midterm elections.

Obama promised the repeal during his presidential campaign. After coming under fire from gay-rights groups for not doing more to end the policy, Obama in October reiterated his pledge to repeal the law.

But he did not offer a timetable or strategy for when and how he would act.

“I will end ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell,’ ” Obama said at the annual dinner for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay civil rights advocacy group.

“We should not be punishing patriotic Americans who have stepped forward to serve the country,” Obama said. “We should be celebrating their willingness to step forward and show such courage ... especially when we are fighting two wars.”