WASHINGTON — The nation's top military officer told Congress Tuesday that gay men and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly in the military, the strongest endorsement ever by the nation's military leadership for overturning the law that excludes them from the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen called repeal of the ban "the right thing to do."
"No matter how I look at the issue, 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 told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Mullen's testimony drew angry responses from most of the committee's Republicans, in contrast to the deference they'd shown Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates in a morning session on the Pentagon's budget, where the Republicans declared the men two of the nation's finest public servants.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona spelled out his objections to repealing the law, calling the current policy imperfect but effective, despite having said four years ago that he'd defer to the wishes of military leaders on the matter.
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama pointedly reminded Mullen that Congress, not the chairman, will decide if the law should be changed.
"I don't think they are required to lie about who they are. I think that is an overstatement," Sessions told Mullen. "You shouldn't use your power to influence a discussion."
"This is about leadership, and I take that very, very seriously," Mullen responded.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the hearing that he thinks it's a matter of when, not if, the law will be repealed. Gates said he'd ordered a 45-day review of the regulations used to implement the current law in an effort to find a "fairer way to enforce it."
He also said he'd asked the Pentagon's chief legal adviser, Jeh Johnson, and the head of the U.S. Army in Europe, Gen. Carter Ham, to head a panel to study what steps would be necessary were the ban to be lifted. The study will take at least a year to complete.
"The mandate of this working group is to thoroughly, objectively and methodically examine all aspects of this question and produce its finding and recommendations in the form of an implementation plan by the end of this calendar year," Gates said. "A guiding principle of our efforts will be to minimize disruption and polarization within the ranks, with special attention paid to those serving on the front lines."
Mullen, who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the nation's highest ranking officer, said that he'd served with gay sailors and soldiers since 1968.
Mullen's and Gates' testimony marked a watershed moment in the long debate over what the U.S. should do about the prohibition on openly gay service members, which has been part of U.S. military policy since 1950.
President Bill Clinton sought to eliminate the ban in 1993, but faced with opposition from both top military officers and Congress, instead issued the so-called "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" executive order that guides current enforcement.
Under that order, military officers aren't supposed to inquire about service members' sexual orientation or seek to know it, while service members themselves are to keep quiet about it.
The rule also requires officers to act if they learn that a subordinate is gay, however.
Since "Don't Ask, Don't Tell went into effect, roughly 13,000 servicemen and women have left the military because of the rule, reaching a peak of 1,273 in 2001.
The number has fallen as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan increased the demand for troops. Last year, 428 gay men and women left the military, according to Defense Department statistics.
About 80 percent of those came forward themselves and acknowledged they were gay. The remaining 20 percent were brought to the attention of commanders by a third party.
Tuesday's hearing was scheduled in response to President Barack Obama call during his State of the Union address last week for ending the ban. It was easily one of the most contentious hearings either Gates or Mullen have appeared at since they were appointed to their posts by Republican President George W. Bush.
As the hearing progressed, Gates' face grew visibly taut as he listened to senator after senator admonish him and Mullen for contemplating a change in policy.
Saying he was "deeply disappointed" in the two men, McCain urged Mullen and Gates to "keep the impact it will have on our forces firmly in mind."
Among the Republicans, only Sen. Susan Collins of Maine didn't attack Mullen and Gates. Democrats were supportive of the repeal and stepped in to defend Mullen from the Republican assault.
"You don't have to be straight to shoot straight," Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said after McCain spoke, quoting McCain's predecessor, Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater, the Arizona conservative who famously reversed his opposition to gays in the military in the 1990s.
Despite Mullen's support, it remains unclear how much of the military's top brass favors repealing the ban.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway has said he opposes ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
Gates said that he'd ordered the study to give both sides more information about the likely impact of lifting the ban — though some analysts questioned whether another study was really needed. There have been numerous studies, surveys and polls about the effects of gays in the military since 1993 and none has suggested that openly gay service members would have an adverse effect on troop morale or unit cohesion.
"At some point, you decide. And the study is another way to not decide," said Peter Singer, a military expert at the Brookings Institution, a center-left policy organization in Washington.
The opposition to lifting the ban also drew fire from the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay group that supports GOP candidates.
"The military spoke today," said Charles Moran, the group's national spokesman. "I don't think some Republicans were prepared to hear such demonstrative support from Secretary Gates and Adm. Mullen."
Supporters of repealing the law noted that soldiers currently serve alongside openly gay troops from other countries, such as Canada and the United Kingdom, in Afghanistan. There have been no adverse effects. Sen. Roland Burris of Illinois compared the lifting of the ban to the decision by President Harry S. Truman to desegregate the U.S. military.
There are thousands of gay servicemen and women in today's military, Moran noted.
"It's not like there are going to be drag shows on military bases," he said. "Gays and lesbians are currently serving in the military. These people are going to be the same people" if the ban is lifted.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow national security developments at McClatchy's Nukes &Spooks
McClatchy Newspapers 2010