Obama's Defense Chiefs Make Public Endorsement of Allowing Gays to Serve in Military Openly

The US's two highest-ranking defense officials have thrown their weight behind President Barack Obama's call to repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that bars homosexuals from serving openly in the military.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday that repealing DADT was "the right thing to do," while Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the committee that the policy would be enforced leniently while the Pentagon studies options for how and when to end it.

"Mullen's line is perhaps the strongest statement to date from a top military official at the Pentagon in support of a 'Don't ask, don't tell' repeal," The Hill reports. The New York Times called Gates' and Mullen's announcements "a major step toward allowing openly gay men and women to serve in the United States military for the first time in its history."

During his State of the Union address last month, President Obama 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."

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While gay-rights activists applauded the president's move, some were alarmed by the fact that the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who were present at the address, sat silently instead of appluading when Obama made the remark. Some saw this as a sign the military brass weren't behind Obama's plans. But today's announcement signaled that top military officials are willing to work on the policy.

In his comments before the committee, Adm. Mullen said it was his "personal and professional belief that allowing homosexuals to serve openly would be the right thing to do."

"I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens," Mullen said. "For me, it comes down to integrity -- theirs as individuals and ours as an institution."

Mullen added that he believed military culture had evolved to the point where "the great young men and women of our military can and would accommodate such a change" -- though he admitted that he did not "know this for a fact, nor do I know for a fact how we would best make such a major policy change in a time of two wars."

Human Rights Campaign, one of the leading gay-rights groups pushing for the repeal of DADT, called today's testimony "a historic step forward.

"When the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense, who also served under President Bush, direct the military to mitigate the pace of discharges while moving toward implementation, we know that Don't Ask Don't Tell is on its way out," HRC said in a statement emailed to the press.

For his part, Secretary Gates made it clear he is following the orders of his commander-in-chief.

“We received our orders from the commander in chief, and we are moving out accordingly,” Gates told the committee.

The Pentagon has launched an 11-month study of DADT, which will report back at the end of 2010 on how best to proceed with a change in the policy. Some observers say this means the law won't be changed this year, as Obama had implied in his State of the Union speech.

News reports this week indicate that the Pentagon will take a more lenient approach to enforcing DADT while the policy is reviewed. The Pentagon is expected to limit dismissal of serving members who are outed by third parties, and not by their own actions.

But the move is already attracting criticism from some corners. Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said it was the role of Congress, not the Pentagon, to change the policy.

"You are embarking on not whether the military should make a change, but how best the military should prepare for it," McCain told Mullen. "In my view, and I know that a lot of people don’t agree with that, the policy has been working and I think it’s been working well."

Since the DADT policy was enacted under President Clinton in 1993, more than 11,000 serving members of the armed forces have been dismissed after their sexual orientation became known to superior officers.

The following video, of Adm. Mullen's opening statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee, was broadcast on C-SPAN, Feb. 2, 1010.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/v/dTmm73KkKuA&hl=en_US&fs=1& expand=1]

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