Gen. Petraeus open to changing ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy on gays in military


Gen. David Petraeus, the commander who oversees troops in the Middle East and South Asia, said Tuesday that the time has come to consider changing the controversial law that bans openly gay people from serving in the U.S. military. 

The statement of the Army general coincides with another busy congressional and lobbying week dedicated to the repeal of the Clinton-era law: The Senate Armed Services Committee is slated to hold another hearing on scrapping the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” law, and supporters of repeal will storm the Senate and House on Friday as part of a national lobbying effort. 

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The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), an organization dedicated solely to the repeal of the law, is staging its national lobbying day on Friday, with a particular focus on the Senate. The group is strongly advocating legislation sponsored by Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, that would repeal the law.

About 130 supporters are expected to visit 80 Senate and House offices on Friday. 

Meanwhile, Petraeus, who was catapulted to fame by overseeing the troop surge in Iraq more than two years ago, said “the time has come to consider a change” but cautioned that the change to the Clinton-era law should be done in a “thoughtful manner,” and it should not be rendered without first making assessments as to how a change would affect recruiting, retention, morale and cohesion within the military services.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has initiated a Pentagon-wide review of implementing the repeal of the law, which is expected to be completed by year’s end.

Petraeus, the most popular general of his generation, stopped short of giving his personal take on the current ban, but told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he had an eight-minute prepared statement on his position regarding the repeal of the ban.

“This is not a sound-bite issue,” Petraeus said.

Levin (D-Mich.) did not allow Petraeus to deliver his statement after ranking member Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) asked the general whether he believed thorough review was necessary before “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed. Levin’s reason: The committee rule on Tuesday was only a six-minute round of questions and answers for each senator.

At the end of the hearing, Levin offered Petraeus the chance to make his statement public, but by press time that statement had not been entered in the Congressional Record and was not released by Petraeus’s spokesman.

Petraeus will likely get another chance to make his statement when he testifies before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. 

“We await Gen. Petraeus’s eight-minute answer,” said SLDN Executive Director Aubrey Sarvis. “We agree that open service is more than a sound bite.”

Sarvis said the Senate repeal bill provides an opportunity for commanders and the Pentagon’s working group examining the implementation of repeal to provide their recommendations this year. 

“The bottom line is our service members are professionals and they know how to bring about the change to open service,” Sarvis added. “That change begins with leadership — leadership as was demonstrated last month by Adm. [Mike] Mullen and Secretary Gates.” 

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in February took an impassioned stand in support of scrapping the law, saying it is “the right thing to do.”

Gates also said he supported President Barack Obama’s decision to repeal the law but indicated the Pentagon wants to take the repeal slowly and would need more than a year to implement it. 

Meanwhile, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead all indicated that they would want to first see the Pentagon’s yearlong study before considering repeal. Casey and Schwartz expressed concerns about changing the policy while the nation is at war. The commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James Conway, first publicly opposed the repeal, but then softened his stance and said he supported Gates’s examination process as part of the working group.