Pentagon study concludes ‘Don’t ask’ repeal wouldn’t hurt military

President Obama and his Defense secretary on Tuesday urged the Senate to repeal the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” law swiftly  after an extensive Pentagon study found that allowing openly gay service members would not harm military missions.

The urgent plea by Obama and Robert Gates marks the beginning of an intense period of political wrangling over repeal of the 17-year-old Clinton-era policy that bans openly gay soldiers  from serving.

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Because the House has already approved the repeal, its fate rests in the Senate, where 60 votes are needed to start debate on the 2011 defense authorization bill, which contains a provision repealing the ban.

Those 60 votes are not yet assured, and time is of the essence: If the law is not repealed during the lame-duck session, it is expected to languish in the 112th Congress, when Republicans — who are largely more leery of Obama’s plan for repeal — will enjoy six more seats in the Senate as well as the House majority.

“Today I call on the Senate to act as soon as possible so I can sign this repeal into law this year and ensure that Americans who are willing to risk their lives for their country are treated fairly and equally,” Obama said in a statement on Tuesday.

Gates said the Pentagon’s 10-month study into the implications of repeal concluded that a “strong majority,” or “more than two-thirds,” of service members do not object to serving alongside openly gay soldiers.

While conceding there could be short-term disruptions, Gates said repealing the law “would not be the wrenching, traumatic change that many have feared and predicted.”

With “thorough preparation,” Gates said, repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” poses a low risk, according to the study.

“I am determined to see that if the law is repealed, the changes are implemented in such a way as to minimize any negative impact on the morale, cohesion and effectiveness of combat units that are deployed, about to deploy to the front lines,” he said.

The review was led by Gen. Carter Ham and Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon’s top lawyer. The working group solicited views from 400,000 service members and received 115,000 responses.

Seventy percent of those surveyed said having an openly gay member of the military in their unit would have a “positive, mixed or no effect.”

Around 30 percent said they would have concerns and negative views about repealing “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

The Marine Corps and other troops serving in predominately male combat specialties, including special operations in the Navy and Air Force, had the highest number predicting a negative impact of repeal — 40 to 60 percent.

Gates acknowledged the higher level of “discontent, discomfort and resistance to changing the current policy” among the combat specialty units and said chiefs of the military services have likewise expressed concern about the findings.

They will be able to give their “expert military advice” during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Friday, Gates said.

“The uniformed service chiefs are less sanguine than the working group about the level of risk of repeal with regard to combat readiness. The views of the chiefs were sought out and taken seriously by me and by the authors of this report,” Gates said during a Pentagon press briefing on Tuesday.

The Senate’s chief supporters of repeal — Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee; Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.); Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.); Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.); and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) — used the report’s findings to support their case.

“Democrats and Republicans should now come together to strengthen our military by ensuring that any American who wants to volunteer to defend our country can do so,” Reid said on Tuesday.

But some key Republicans, led by Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the ranking member on the Armed Services panel, believe the study and survey are flawed and should not be used as backing for the repeal. At press time, McCain communications director Brooke Buchanan said the senator and his staff were in the process of “carefully reviewing the Pentagon’s report regarding the repeal of the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ law.”

Meanwhile, leading Republicans in the House urged Democratic leaders to hold hearings on the Pentagon’s report and recommendations — and hold off on repeal during the truncated, end-of-year session.

Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Armed Services panel, who is slated to become chairman next year, said the briefing and report are “first steps in what should be a comprehensive process” in studying whether repealing the law would undermine military readiness or negatively affect the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

McKeon, who supports the “Don’t ask” policy, also said a rush to repeal would be “irresponsible.”

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), the ranking member of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, said “lawmakers and military leaders need to have as much information as possible before any action is taken on such a significant military policy.”

Gates said the concerns of combat troops as expressed in the survey “do not present an insurmountable barrier to successful repeal.”

“This can be done and should be done without posing a serious risk to military readiness,” Gates said. “These findings do lead me to conclude that an abundance of care and preparation is required if we are to avoid a disruptive and potentially dangerous impact on the performance of those serving at the tip of the spear in America’s wars.”

The Pentagon’s working group, as part of its report, also made repeal implementation recommendations. Among the key points that would lead to a smooth transition: an emphasis on leadership, professionalism and promoting strength through respect.

This story was originally posted at 2:15 p.m. and updated at 8:58 p.m.

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