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May 21, 2010

Chances of repealing ‘don’t ask’ appear to be fading

Washington, D.C.--Any reasonable chance of repealing the law banning gay military servicemembers known as “don’t ask, don’t tell” seems to be fading fast despite presidential campaign promises and overwhelming public support to do so.

Congress is split on the matter, and the White House has shown no leadership other than a few lines in speeches.

Now, evidence is mounting that there is resistance to repeal within the military ranks, and that the president has little political will to challenge them.

Conventional wisdom holds that unless the president shows leadership and actively works for immediate repeal of the 1993 compromise, it will likely remain law. That is because of expected conservative congressional gains after November’s elections, which will also adversely impact the rest of the LGBT rights legislative agenda.

Suspicions of delay and prevarication on a vote to repeal DADT by military officials and congressional opponents were confirmed April 30 with the discovery of two letters. Hours later, President Obama issued a statement apparently withdrawing the commitment he made during his State of the Union address when he said: “This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are. It’s the right thing to do.”

When May ends, so will all opportunities to attach DADT’s repeal to the Defense Authorization bill, long believed to be the best way to get it done because it is a bill that must pass. Obama’s May 14 memorandum to Congress outlining priorities for the bill did not include repealing DADT.

The letters

House Armed Services Committee chair Ike Skelton, a Democrat from Missouri and an unapologetic supporter of DADT, wrote to Defense Secretary Robert Gates April 28.

The entire letter reads: “As markup of the Fiscal Year 2011 National Defense Authorization Act quickly approaches, I would appreciate your views and position on the advisability of legislative proposals that may impact the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. I expect this issue will be raised at a number of junctures throughout the NDAA process, and your thoughts on potential congressional action at this time would be of great value to me and to the committee when this issue is raised.”

Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Admiral Michael Mullen responded to Skelton two days later with a letter calling for more study of the issue and consensus among servicemembers and their families supporting repeal of DADT before Congress takes it up.

“I believe in the strongest possible terms that the Department must, prior to any legislative action, be allowed to conduct a thorough, objective and systematic assessment of the impact of such a policy change,” Gates wrote.

“A critical element of this effort is the need to systematically engage our forces, their families, and the broader military community throughout this process,” Gates continued.

“Our military must be afforded the opportunity to inform us of their concerns, insights, and suggestions if we are to carry out this change successfully.”

“Therefore,” Gates concluded, “I strongly oppose any legislation that seeks to change this policy prior to the completion of this vital assessment process. Further, I hope Congress will not do so, as it would send a very damaging message to our men and women in uniform that in essence their views, concerns, and perspectives do not matter on an issue with such a direct impact and consequence for them and their families.”

This letter was shocking to advocates of DADT repeal and contradicts earlier statements by Gates.

Gates testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee February 2. That committee’s chair, Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan, favors DADT repeal. In that testimony, Gates announced changes to how the law is enforced so to have fewer gay and lesbian servicemembers fired, and pledged that the Defense Department would move quickly to implement the law’s repeal.

“Last week, during the State of the Union address, the president announced he will work with Congress this year to repeal the law known as ‘don’t ask don’t tell,’ ” Gates testified.

“He subsequently directed the Department of Defense to begin the preparations necessary for a repeal of the current law and policy. I fully support the President’s decision,” Gates said.

“The question before us is not whether the military prepares to make this change, but how we best prepare for it. We have received our orders from the Commander in Chief and we are moving out accordingly,” Gates continued.

Presidential inaction

However, when asked about the apparent attitude change with his Pentagon leadership, the White House released a statement echoing it:

“The president’s commitment to repealing “don’t ask don’t tell” is unequivocal. This is not a question of if, but how. That’s why we’ve said that the implementation of any congressional repeal will be delayed until the DOD study of how best to implement that repeal is completed. The president is committed to getting this done both soon and right.”

Asked for clarification, White House spokesperson Shin Inouye refused to go beyond that written statement.

That new posture, combined with the absence of DADT repeal in the budget, added to previous lack of leadership on the matter is infuriating advocates of repeal.

Servicemembers Legal Defense Network director Aubrey Sarvis said, “As a result of the Commander in Chief’s decision to defer to Secretary Gates’ wishes and timeline, gay service members will continue to be treated as second class citizens, and any sense of fairness may well have been delayed for yet another year, perhaps for another decade.”

Referring to the 1948 desegregation of the armed forces, Sarvis said, “Harry Truman led, Barack Obama defers, kicking repeal down the road again.”

“We have the votes in the House and we’re close to having the votes in the Senate Armed Services Committee,” Sarvis said. “The President, however, is not helping us to get the votes we need.”

Sarvis said that servicemembers took Obama at his word when he promised DADT repeal this year, and is calling for the president to speak “clearly and frankly” to Gates and political advisers.

“The president did not sound like a fierce repeal advocate,” Sarvis said. “He sounded like someone who wants to have it both ways. And that is not leadership. That is politics as usual.”

Six months to implement changes

Obama is also disappointing House Democrats who want to repeal DADT.

Rep. Patrick Murphy, the Pennsylvania Democrat and Iraq War veteran sponsoring the repeal bill, told the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call that the administration’s call for more time doesn’t make sense because the bill already gives six months from passage to implementation.

Murphy told Roll Call, “There’s plenty of time to figure out the implementation of this.”

Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, who is openly gay, also took issue with Obama.

“I think the president made a big mistake allowing that letter to be sent,” Frank told Roll Call. “It will give some members an excuse not to vote for it.”

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