Don't ask, don't tell: Pentagon study finds minimal risk to lifting gay ban

Nov 11, 2010

Washington Post staff writer Ed O'Keefe will be online Thursday, Nov. 11, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss a Pentagon study group report which has concluded that the military can lift the ban on gays serving openly with only minimal and isolated incidents of risk to current war efforts.

Thanks for joining us, I'm Ed O'Keefe. My colleague Greg Jaffe and I in today's Post report on leaked details of the Pentagon's study on repealing "don't ask, don't tell," the policy that bans gay men and lesbians from openly serving in uniform.

A study group examining the policy, " has concluded that the military can lift the ban on gays serving openly in uniform with only minimal and isolated incidents of risk to the current war efforts."

"More than 70 percent of respondents to a survey sent to active-duty and reserve troops over the summer said the effect of repealing the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy would be positive, mixed or nonexistent, said two sources familiar with the document. The survey results led the report's authors to conclude that objections to openly gay colleagues would drop once troops were able to live and serve alongside them."

Let me answer two questions at the start: No, I won't tell you who our sources are.

And no, unfortunately we don't currently know the actual percentages of troops who think the impact of repealing the policy would be positive, mixed or nonexistent. All we know is that taken together, they total more than 70 percent.

Now to your questions...

Based on your story, the isolated outlier may be some part of the Marines, where somewhat more service members are concerned about the repeal of DADT -- although it's important to note that EVEN in the Marines, the majority are positive or neutral, per your story. We also know that only the Marine Corps commandant is publicly at odds with the Commander in Chief and DoD leadership in his bitter opposition to the use of openly gay troops. Surely his leadership attitude is producing the troop attitudes in the survey. Why is he allowed to do this? If DADT is repealed, can he continue to backbite, complain, subvert, and slow-walk it, or does that cross the line into insubordination at some point? We all benefit from the First Amendment, but it applies differently in the military. When you are a military leader, what you say has consequences, as General McChrystal, a much finer officer, unfortunately rediscovered.

Amos is a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and is obligated to share his professional opinions when asked by the president and lawmakers. He's perfectly within his right to do so.

That said, Joint Chief of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen publicly rebuked Amos for expressing his concerns to news media before the report's release. And we know from sources that Amos's comments upset his service chiefs colleagues, who are privately expressing their opinions.

Please remember folks, that in a lot of situations, military personnel do not have a choice as to where they eat, live and sleep!

That's right, and our sources said the report spends little time discussing housing issues and benefits.

Bottom line: You shouldn't expect to see many, if any, same-sex couples living together in military housing. That's because the military must abide by the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which does not recognize same-sex marriage.

And the report recommends that objections by troops who do not want to room or shower with openly gay troops should be handled case-by-case by commanders and should be scrutinized, according to one of our sources.

Sources: Pentagon group finds there is minimal risk to lifting gay ban during war

Cannot President Obama, as commander-in-chief, simply issue an executive order, eliminating DADT? Why doesn't he? Relying on the Congress is a fool's errand.

The president could take executive action, but, as he has said, predecessors could reverse his executive actions by taking executive action.

That's why Obama would prefer Congress to repeal the 1993 law it passed allowing for the policy. It's a legally stronger way to end the ban and could not be reversed by a future president alone.

If legislative efforts fail later this year however, you should expect to see gay rights groups once again pressure Obama to take executive action. Whether he agrees to do so remains to be seen.

Sooner or later, Americans will learn that a person's sexual orientation has absolutely no bearing on whether he or she can be an effective soldier - or sailor, or candlestick maker. I am a Canadian who knows a number of people in our military, and they tell me that the very few of their colleagues who have trouble accepting a sexually integrated military are secretly laughed at by the vast majority. It seems laughable that you have had to lower your standards in other areas such as education and criminal records in order to meet recruiting targets, while at the same time there is an effort to restrict the numbers of fully suitable recruits because of an irrelevant criteria.

Thank you for your thoughts.

The thoughts of this Canadian participant echo what many pro-repeal advocates have said -- that if the military can lower its recruitment standards to meet recruitment goals, why can't it also accept gays and lesbians who are eager and willing to enlist?


Hi Ed and Greg -- Thanks for taking questions today. How do you expect Sen. McCain and others to react to this report? He (among others) has said that they'll listen to the military, but when the military tells them something other than what they want to hear, we get the same old line about changing the policy is not in the best interests of the military, etc. etc.

We've yet to hear today from Sen. McCain's office, but we know he's been trying to strip language lifting the gay ban from the annual Defense authorization bill, the massive Pentagon policy measure that includes other defense-related issues.

McCain has indeed said that he wanted to ensure a fair process that allowed the troops and their leaders to speak out.

As we wrote today, "The long, detailed and nuanced report will almost certainly be used by opponents and supporters of repeal legislation to bolster their positions in what is likely to be a heated and partisan congressional debate."

So while we don't know yet how McCain and others will respond, it's likely they'll find something in the report to hang their arguments on.

If Congress repeals DADT and the military starts accepting openly gay servicemembers, is there an understanding that they would still be subject to all other rules governing sexual conduct in the military? Is there any danger of there being pressure to not enforce such rules with respect to GLBT individuals but yes for heterosexuals (because of discrimination/legal fears)? Also, what would the implications be for religious servicemembers objecting to homosexuality because of their religions? Would it be official military policy that such views cannot be tolerated or would it be fine as long as there is no actual discrimination? That might be something to explore further as part of the complete look at effects on military readiness/cohesiveness.

You're asking very important questions and we don't yet have complete answers because we haven't seen the final report.

But here's the partial information we learned"


-- The report urges an end to the military ban on sodomy between consenting adults regardless of what Congress or the federal courts might do about "don't ask, don't tell."

-- The report concludes that gay troops should not be put into a special class for equal-opportunity or discrimination purposes.

-- The report recommends few, if any, changes to policy covering military housing and benefits, because the military must abide by the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which does not recognize same-sex marriage.

-- Objections by troops who do not want to room or shower with openly gay troops should be handled case-by-case by commanders and should be scrutinized, the source said. But bottom line: Just because someone says "I don't want to live with a gay colleagues because I have religious opposition," doesn't automatically mean they'll get a new roommate, according to our source's read of the report's recommendations.

I am a retired 06 Navy Seal. I never cared about the sexual preference of team members. In a Seal team unit cohesion is paramount. It was never an issue on any Seal Team I was in to include ST6 . Yes there were gay SEALS. It all comes down to leadership. Either you can lead or you can't. If you can't lead a diverse team of military members then get out. And I am talking to a certain USMC General who is/will be commandant. Obviously punk you lack leadership skills.

Thanks for your comments, and a very happy Veterans Day to you and your colleagues. We thank you for your service.

Although the president has said that he fears taking executive action due to the possible revision by SUCCESSORS (not predecessors), I'm not convinced he shouldn't do so. One of the prime arguments by those opposing repealing DADT is that it will have negative effects on morale. If he makes an executive decision that the military may not enforce DADT discharges and gay service members do not have to fear discharge and morale does not decrease and recruiting increases, then shouldn't that be an argument in and of itself that DADT is detrimental to the armed services? I think 2+ years of positive results should speak for themselves and keep future presidents from reenacting DADT. Besides, once it is in effect, Congress could still, independently, make such legislative changes. In fact, it could help the Democratic side to pass such legislation if it were in effect with no negative effects.

(Good catch, we'll correct that mistake!)

The points you make are another argument the White House has used against taking executive action: It would cause confusion, and thus potentially disrupt the morale and good order of the armed forces.

President Obama wants to make a clean, legally-proof change in policy. His argument is that requires legislative action. We'll see if it happens.

I know we can't know for sure, but what is the estimated gay population in the military today? How many people are dismissed from the service each year as a result of DADT?

As with all other aspects of this issue, there's no easy answer to your question.

The military discharged 428 people for violating "don't ask, don't tell" in fiscal year 2009, acording to a Congressional Research Service report published last month. They accounted for .03 percent of the total active duty force.

The total number of DADT-related discharges was down from 619 in 2008.

The Palm Center, a University of California Santa Barbara think tank that supports lifting the gay ban, found that while women account for 14 percent of Army soldiers, they received 48 percent of the Army's "don't ask" discharges last year. Six percent of the Marine Corps is female, but women accounted for 23 percent of its discharges. The Navy discharged only two officers for violating the policy in 2009, and both were Asian. The Army discharged five officers -- two were black, one was Asian and two were white, the Palm Center said.

Activists believe that at least 13,500 service members have been discharged in violation of "don't ask, don't tell" since the policy began during the Clinton administration.

The Williams Institute at UCLA believes there are 66,000 gay men and lesbians currently serving in the active duty and reserves. The estimate is based on census data reviewed by the institute.

Regarding those service members who have been thrown out of the service due to DADT, what is the effect on the morale of their units? Are the remaining unit members generally pleased or outraged that one of their unit has been expelled?

Frankly, we have no way of knowing. (And for reporting purposes, I wish we did.)

Because of the anti-gay policy. When you have an openly anti-gay policy it creates an environment that allows and fosters such remarks.

Another person's opinion...

Ed, why are you claiming that President Obama could rescind Don't Ask Don't Tell with an executive order? That is not just a "Pentagon policy," it is a law passed by Congress and only Congress can repeal it.

Presidents have the authority to issue stop-loss orders that halt all discharges -- of any kind, for whatever reason.

The power is usually reserved for use during a time of war.

Since the U.S. is engaged in two major military operations, gay rights advocates argue he could issue a stop-loss order ending all discharges of any kind, thus temporarily halting DADT-related removals.

Can service persons dismissed for DADT be reinstated or apply for reinstatement?

They should be able to do so if ever the ban is lifted.

Of COURSE there is a security issue involved with lifting the gay ban - it would make our troops MORE secure by having thousands more people enlisting, more skilled workers, more linguists, etc. I wish the survey had also covered whether, knowing that "x" number of additional servicepeople in "x" number of technical roles would be added, the current servicepeople (including the Marines) would believe the repeal of the ban would be beneficial.

One person's opinion...

Do you find that soldiers are either for this, or against this, or does experience change minds? Any anecdotal evidence of formerly anti gay soldiers who now support gays in the military?

The easy answer is no.

The longer is, this is an incredibly complex, nuanced issue that does not welcome easy "yes" or "no" answers.

Remember: the survey distributed to troops over the summer did not explicitly ask, "Do you support or oppose lifting the ban on gays in the military?"

Groups for and against lifting the ban have criticized the study group for not explicitly asking the question.

But yes -- I've heard from former service members, mostly older, who've said they were initially opposed to or skeptical of gay colleagues, but now believe teh ban should end.

Why didn't the president just tell the DoJ not to appeal the court order overturning DADT? He doesn't need to issue an executive order; he could have legally overturned DADT by literally doing nothing. What implications does the report have for the court case?

As I've been told by administration sources, the Justice Department has an obligation to defend laws on the books, whether or not the president in power agrees with them.

Consider your question from the other side: What might happen if the Justice Department started to pick and choose which laws to defend?

This is why President Obama wants Congress to lift the ban by repealing the law it passed in 1993: It would be the most legally-bulletproof way to end the policy.

According to Wikipedia, approximately 1400 service members have been discharge by application of DADT since 1994. Have there ever been studies on how many years of service, on average, the dischargees have? And what type of training and experience? I seems incredibly short-sighted to me that the military would just want to throw away the skills that they trained into combat veterans, highly skilled individuals and good service leaders. That resulting loss of combined skills and leadership it extremely expensive to the military.

Wikipedia's numbers are wrong, unless you mean to say 14,000. (It's a great site, but an unreliable source for most data.)

According to data compiled by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (a group supportive of repealing the ban) DADT-related discharges peaked in 2001, when 1,273 service members were discharged. The numbers have steadily declined in the years since, because of the military's post-9/11 needs, advocates for repeal said.

The troops discharged in 2009 for violating DADT included eight linguists, 20 infantrymen, 16 medical aides and one member of the Army's special forces, according to an analysis by the Palm Center, a group also supportive of repeal. Those positions are considered "mission critical" by the Government Accountability Office.

Folks, that's it for now, many thanks for your thoughtful questions. My coverage of the issue will continue in my blog, <a href=""The Federal Eye"</a>.

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Ed O'Keefe
Staff writer Ed O'Keefe writes The Post's Federal Eye blog.
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