Congresswoman wants to end 'don't ask, don't tell'

By Frank Davies

Mercury News Washington Bureau

Posted: 03/02/2009 05:29:32 PM PST

WASHINGTON — The debate over whether gays should serve openly in the military is heating up again, as a Bay Area congresswoman pushes a new plan to end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy — a goal President Barack Obama promised to pursue during his campaign.

Rep. Ellen Tauscher, a Walnut Creek Democrat with close ties to the military, is introducing a bill this week to end the restriction on gays in the armed services. Under current policy, gays may serve only if they keep their sexual orientation private, and commanders and recruiters are barred from asking questions about their sexuality.

"This is an important civil rights issue. We also need the strongest military possible, and we need to recruit the best and brightest Americans. Some happen to be gay," Tauscher said Monday during a forum at the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank.

Obama said during his campaign that he favored ending "don't ask, don't tell," and Robert Gibbs, his spokesman, said in early January that the administration would work to do that. But Gibbs was careful to say it may take time: "Not everything will get done in the beginning, but he's committed to following through" on ending the ban.

Obama has reason to be wary, based on what happened to another new Democratic president with no military service, Bill Clinton, when he took office in 1993. Clinton had promised to end the ban, then ran into a firestorm of opposition from the

Pentagon and Congress.Congress took the unusual step of taking the matter out of Clinton's hands and working out the "don't ask, don't tell" compromise backed by the military.

Obama is now preoccupied with managing two wars — drawing down forces in Iraq and ramping up the effort in Afghanistan — and is just starting to establish a relationship with military leaders.

"Clinton was scarred by the issue, and Obama is right to be cautious," said Lawrence Korb, a military analyst with the Center for American Progress who served in the Reagan administration. "But there are costs for delaying this. Obama wants to expand the Army and Marines, and they need to enlarge the talent pool for recruits."

Korb has said that an estimated 65,000 gays are serving in the military now.

Korb and Tauscher, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said public opinion has shifted significantly on this issue. A CNN poll in December found that 81 percent believe openly gay people should be allowed to serve.

Two leading supporters of "don't ask, don't tell" in 1993 — Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn — now favor a review. "It's been 15 years and attitudes have changed," Powell said in December.

Owen West, a Marine reservist who served two tours in Iraq, wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed piece that he changed his mind and now favors ending the ban: "The battlefield has its own values, starting with courage. Sexual orientation falls somewhere below musical taste. What a person chooses to do stateside, off-duty, in his own apartment is irrelevant in a fight."

Ending the ban would improve military readiness, said Nathaniel Frank, a research fellow at the University of California-Santa Barbara whose new book, "Unfriendly Fire," documents how more than 12,000 gay service members have been discharged since 1993. That includes 54 Arabic linguists.

But opposition to changing the policy remains strong. Marine Gen. Peter Pace, while chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2007, said homosexual activity was "immoral" and should not be condoned. Sen. John McCain said last fall that most military commanders he spoke with want to keep "don't ask, don't tell."

Karen England, a conservative activist and mother of an Army officer in Sacramento, said the current policy was needed: "If the military thinks it should be changed, then let the military do it. What lawmakers are doing is pushing their social agenda."

Tauscher acknowledged that she and others who want to end the ban need to work to build support in Congress, and that may include a commission to study the issue "headed by someone like Colin Powell."

"The military helped break down barriers through desegregation and expanding the role of women," Tauscher said. "We must tear down this final barrier."

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