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U.S. Military Chiefs Urge Caution on Congress Ending `Don't Ask' Policy

U.S. military chiefs urged caution today on repealing the prohibition on openly gay service members, while agreeing that the armed forces can manage the change if ordered to do so.

“My recommendation is that we should not implement repeal at this time,” General James Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in Washington today. He advocated waiting until the Marines aren’t focused primarily on combat in Afghanistan or preparing for it, as now is the case for more than 50 percent of his forces.

Army General George Casey and Air Force General Norton Schwartz said repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy poses a “moderate” risk to U.S. military effectiveness, a day after Defense Secretary Robert Gates presented the committee with a Pentagon study and described the risk as low.

Considering the war in Afghanistan, where the U.S. plans to begin withdrawing troops in July, Schwartz said the implementation of any congressional repeal of the policy should be delayed until 2012 to allow time for education and training. Casey also backed a delay, while saying the law “should be repealed eventually.”

“It is difficult for me, as a member of the Joint Chiefs, to recommend placing any additional discretionary demands on our leadership cadres in Afghanistan at this particularly challenging time,” Schwartz said.

Major Cultural Change

While Casey said ending the policy would represent a “major cultural and policy change in the middle of the war,” he said that “it is my judgment we could implement repeal with moderate risk to our military effectiveness and long-term health of the force.”

The members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff testified in the second day of hearings on this week’s release of a Pentagon study showing that most service members said serving with openly gay soldiers wouldn’t hurt the military.

President Barack Obama and Democratic lawmakers are looking for support from at least two Republicans to reach the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster threat and bring the measure to the Senate floor before their majority shrinks in January as a result of last month’s elections.

The House of Representatives approved the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law earlier this year. Failure to complete repeal this year would force supporters to start over with new legislation next year, when Republicans will control the House.

Crush of Business

The legislation risks getting caught in the crush of business in the lame-duck session, which includes debates over tax cuts, unemployment benefits and a nuclear-arms treaty with Russia.

Most Armed Services committee Republicans, including Arizona Senator John McCain, said yesterday they weren’t swayed by the arguments in favor of repeal put forward by Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, in the first day of hearings.

“I think it’s pretty obvious that there is significantly divided opinion,” McCain said today. “It is very obvious there is a lot more scrutiny and work needed before passing this legislation.”

McCain said he wanted more hearings to get testimony from senior enlisted personnel and regional commanders.

Opponents of repeal point to results in the Pentagon survey showing that members of combat units and Marines were more likely than other service members to say that letting gays serve openly would hurt military effectiveness.

Little Negative Impact

Gates and Mullen testified that, overall, the study indicates that the risk of change is low and that “a solid majority” of service members said repeal wouldn’t have a negative impact.

Marine Corps General James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cited survey results today that showed 92 percent of respondents in the survey who had worked with a service member they knew to be gay or lesbian saw no negative effect or described their experience as good.

That demonstrates the gap between perceptions of what might happen if the policy is repealed and the actual experience of soldiers in the field, Cartwright told the committee.

The service chiefs today rejected suggestions by McCain and other Republicans on the panel that the Pentagon study should have asked military personnel directly whether they favor repeal of the don’t ask, don’t tell policy.

‘Not a Democracy’

The Army is “not a democracy,” Casey said. Amos said he was confident he understands the views of Marines based on the study and his own discussions.

“We did not need a referendum-type question,” Amos said.

Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins, who voted for the repeal measure in committee earlier this year, yesterday cited a soldier’s comments in the study that “no one cared” that a member of his unit was gay. “He’s big, he’s mean and he kills lots of bad guys,” Collins quoted the soldier as saying.

In a written statement, Collins said she would vote to bring the measure to the Senate floor if the Democratic leadership “allows sufficient debate and amendments.”

Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown, also a committee member, plans to issue a statement on his decision today, after the second day of hearings, spokeswoman Gail Gitcho said.

“I’ve been to many funerals, unfortunately, in my home state for those soldiers, and one thing I never asked was ‘Are they gay or straight?’” Brown said during the hearing yesterday.

Court Ruling

The service chiefs testifying today, like Gates and Mullen yesterday, said they worry more that a potential court order would force an immediate shift without time to prepare.

A federal trial judge in September ruled the ban unconstitutional. The Supreme Court last month allowed the law to remain in effect during appeals.

“Precipitous repeal is not, it is not, a place where your armed forces want to be,” Schwartz said.

A survey that underpinned the study found that while most military personnel said repealing the ban would have either a positive effect, little effect or no impact at all, 40 percent to 60 percent of respondents from the Marine Corps and largely all-male combat units said it would have negative repercussions.

“Repeal of the law will not fundamentally change who we are or what we do,” said Admiral Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations.

To contact the reporters on this story: Flavia Krause-Jackson at fjackson@bloomberg.net; Viola Gienger in Washington at vgienger@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net.

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