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Statement on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Report

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, The Pentagon, Tuesday, November 30, 2010

This past February, I established a high-level working group to review the issues associated with implementing a repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law regarding homosexual men and women serving in the military and, based on those findings, to develop recommendations for implementation, should the law change.  The working group has completed their work and today the Department is releasing their report to the Congress and the American public.

Admiral Mullen and I will briefly comment on the review’s findings and our recommendations for the way ahead.   We will take some questions, and then the Working Group’s co-chairs –General Counsel Jeh Johnson and U.S. Army General Carter Ham – will provide more detail on the report and answer any questions you might have on its methodology, data, and recommendations.

When I first appointed Mr. Johnson and General Ham to assume this duty, I did so with the confidence that they would undertake this task with the thoroughness, seriousness, professionalism, and objectivity befitting a task of this magnitude and consequence.   I believe that a close and serious reading of this report will demonstrate that they have done just that.  We are grateful for the service they have rendered in taking on such a complex and controversial project.

The findings of their report reflect nearly ten months of research and analysis along several lines of study, and represent the most thorough and objective review ever of this difficult policy issue and its impact on the American military.

First, the group reached out to the force to better understand their views and attitudes about a potential repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell law.  As was made clear at the time, and is worth repeating today, this outreach was not a matter of taking a poll of the military to determine whether the law should be changed.  The very idea of asking the force to, in effect, vote on such a matter is antithetical to our system of government and would have been without precedent in the long history of our civilian-led military.  The President of the United States, the commander in chief of the Armed Forces, made his position on this matter clear – a position I support.  Our job, as the civilian and military leadership of the Department of Defense, was to determine how best to prepare for such a change should the Congress change the law.

Nonetheless, I thought it critically important to engage our troops and their families on this issue, as ultimately it will be they who will determine whether or not such a transition is successful.   I believed that we had to learn the attitudes, obstacles and concerns that would need to be addressed should the law be changed.  We could do this only by reaching out and listening to our men and women in uniform and their families.  The working group undertook this through a variety of means – from a mass survey answered by tens of thousands of troops and their spouses to meetings with small groups and individuals, including hearing from those discharged under the current law.

Mr. Johnson and General Ham will provide more detail on the results of the survey of troops and their families.  In summary, a strong majority of those who answered the survey – more than two thirds – do not object to gays and lesbians serving openly in uniform.   The findings suggest that for large segments of the military repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, though potentially disruptive in the short term, would not be the wrenching, traumatic change that many have feared and predicted.   The data also shows that within the combat arms specialties and units there is a higher level of discontent –of discomfort and resistance to changing the current policy.  Those findings – and the potential implications for America’s fighting forces – remain a source of concern to the service chiefs, and to me.  I will discuss this later.

Second, the working group also examined thoroughly all the potential changes to the department’s regulations and policies dealing with matters such as benefits, housing, relationships within the ranks, separations, and discharges.  As the co-chairs will explain in a few minutes, the majority of concerns often raised in association with the repeal – dealing with sexual conduct, fraternization, billeting arrangements, marital or survivor benefits – could be governed by existing laws and regulations.  Existing policies can – and should – be applied equally to homosexuals as well as heterosexuals.  While a repeal would require some changes to regulations, the key to success, as with most things military, is training, education, and, above all, strong and principled leadership up and down the chain of command.

Third, the working group examined the potential impact of a change in the law on military readiness, including the impact on unit cohesion, recruiting and retention, and other issues crucial to the performance of the force. 

In my view, getting this category right is the most important thing we must do.   The U.S. Armed Forces are in the middle of two major overseas military campaigns – a complex and difficult drawdown in Iraq, a war in Afghanistan – both of which are putting extraordinary stress on those serving on the ground and their families.  It is the well-being of these brave young Americans – those doing the fighting and the dying since 9/11 – that has guided every decision I have made at the Pentagon since taking this post nearly four years ago.  It will be no different on this issue.  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, or about to deploy, to the front lines.

With regards to readiness, the working group report concluded that overall, and with thorough preparation – and I emphasize through preparation – there is a low risk from repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.  However, as I mentioned earlier, the survey data showed that a higher proportion – between 40 and 60 percent – of those troops serving in predominantly all-male combat specialties – mostly Army and Marines, but including the special operations formations of the Navy and Air Force – predicted a negative effect on unit cohesion from repealing the current law. 

For this reason, 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.  The chiefs will also have the opportunity to provide their expert military advice to the Congress as they have to me and to the President.   Their perspective deserves serious attention and consideration, as it reflects the judgment of decades of experience and the sentiment of many senior officers.

In my view, the concerns of combat troops as expressed in the survey do not present an insurmountable barrier to a successful repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” This can be done, and it should be done, without posing a serious risk to military readiness.  However, 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. 

This brings us to my recommendations on the way ahead.

Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell after a number of steps take place – the last being certification by the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman that the new policies and regulations were consistent with the U.S. military’s standards of readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention.  Now that we have completed this review, I strongly urge the Senate to pass this legislation and send it to the president for signature before the end of this year.
I believe this is a matter of some urgency because, as we have seen this past year, the federal courts are increasingly becoming involved in this issue.  Just a few weeks ago, one lower-court ruling forced the Department into an abrupt series of changes that were no doubt confusing and distracting to men and women in the ranks.  It is only a matter of time before the federal courts are drawn once more into the fray, with the very real possibility that this change would be imposed immediately by judicial fiat – by far the most disruptive and damaging scenario I can imagine, and the one most hazardous to military morale, readiness and battlefield performance. 

Therefore, it is important that this change come via legislative means – that is, legislation informed by the review just completed.  What is needed is a process that allows for a well-prepared and well-considered implementation.  Above all, a process that carries the imprimatur of the elected representatives of the people of the United States.  Given the present circumstances, those that choose not to act legislatively are rolling the dice that this policy will not be abruptly overturned by the courts.

The legislation presently before the Congress would authorize a repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, pending a certification by the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs that it would not harm military readiness.  Nonetheless, I believe that it would be unwise to push ahead with full implementation of repeal before more can be done to prepare the force – in particular, those in ground combat specialties and units – for what could be a disruptive and disorienting change.  

The Working Group’s plan – with a strong emphasis on education, training and leader development – provides a solid road map for a successful full implementation of the repeal, assuming that the military is given sufficient time and preparation to get the job done right.   The Department has already made a number of changes to regulations that, within existing law, applied more exacting standards to procedures investigating or separating troops for suspected homosexual conduct – changes that have added a measure of common sense and decency to a legally and morally fraught process.  

I would close on a personal note and a personal appeal.  This is the second time that I have dealt with this issue as a leader in public life, the prior case being at CIA in 1992, when I directed that openly gay applicants be treated like all other applicants – that is, whether as individuals they met our competitive standards.  That was, and is, a situation significantly different – in circumstance and consequence – than that confronting the U.S. armed forces today.   Views towards gay and lesbian Americans have changed considerably during this period, and have grown more accepting since Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was first enacted.   But feelings on this matter can still run deep and divide, often starkly, along demographic, cultural and generational lines – not only in society as a whole, but in the uniformed ranks as well. 

For this reason I would ask, as Congress takes on this debate, for all involved to resist the urge to lure our troops and their families into the politics of this issue.  What is called for is a careful and considered approach.  An approach that, to the extent possible, welcomes all who are qualified and capable of serving their country in uniform, but one that does not undermine – out of haste or  dogmatism – those attributes that make the U.S. military the finest fighting force in the world.  The stakes are too high – for a nation under threat, for a military at war – to do any less.

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