Gates to unveil plan to abandon 'don't ask, don't tell'

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Defense Secretary Robert Gates is expected to unveil the Pentagon's plan for rolling back the controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding gay and lesbian service members on Tuesday.

During last week's State of the Union address, President Obama made clear he wanted a change.

"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," he said, to a healthy round of partisan applause.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff sat stone-faced as the president made the announcement and have been quiet on the matter since the State of the Union speech.

A senior Pentagon official told CNN the military leaders are expected to support the president, but also will tell him to what extent they think allowing gays to openly serve will hurt the morale and readiness of the force.

"All they want is a little bit of time" to come up with ideas on how to implement a change in the policy, if it's approved by Congress, the official said of the Joint Chiefs.

The policy, implemented by President Clinton in 1993, bars openly gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals from serving in the U.S. military, and prevents the military from asking them about it.

In a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll in April 2009, 48 percent of Americans favored maintaining the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy. Thiry-seven percent opposed the policy because they believed it treated homosexuals too harshly, while another 8 percent opposed it because they believed it treated homosexuals too leniently.

Gates is expected to appear Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee. As a first step, he is expected to call for no longer discharging people whose sexual orientation is revealed by others.

"'Don't ask, don't tell' to many people, including myself, seemed so reasonable," Alex Nicholson, a former Army intelligence officer discharged for being gay, told CNN's "American Morning."

"I knew I was gay going in, and I knew about 'don't ask, don't tell,' but you know, 'don't ask, don't tell' as a sound bite sounds very reasonable. It sounds like nobody will inquire as to your sexual orientation -- as long as you don't throw it in anyone's face, you won't have a problem.

"But after I got in, I realized that 'don't ask, don't tell' was much more all-inclusive and all-encompassing," said Nicholson, who now is the executive director of Servicemembers United, an advocacy group that opposes the policy. "It was more like 'don't ask, don't tell, don't happen to be found out any time, any place, in any way.' "

After about a year, Nicholson said his sexual orientation was found out within his unit. "That information spread, and then the command was forced into a corner in which they had to discharge me," he said.

Since the policy was implemented, more than 13,500 service members have been discharged, according to Rep. Jim Moran, D-Virginia. In 2009, there were 428 discharges under the policy -- the lowest rate of discharge since implementation of the policy, he said. The highest year was 2001, with 1,227 discharges, he said.

"This shows that during wartime, DADT is not being pursued aggressively because one's orientation has nothing to do with their ability to fight," Moran said in a written statement Monday.

Defense officials have said privately that the will to enforce the law is declining.

Another military official familiar with the discussion said some of the issues to be considered by the military include the cost of implementing a new policy, benefits for gay spouses, potential hate crimes, and even logistical questions such as the possible need to renovate barracks to separate straight and gay troops.

According to the official, separate housing or showers were not considered serious possibilities, but would be discussed in order to be ruled out.

Nicholson acknowledged there are legitimate concerns, but said some of the issues raised, such as showers and housing, are merely delaying tactics used to mask "reasons that people really don't want to see this happen."

Previously, Gates has said the transition from the existing law should be done gradually and "very, very carefully."

"The president has been clear about where he wants to go and what he thinks needs to be done," Gates said in April at the U.S. Army War College, when asked about changing the law. "But I think that he is approaching this in a deliberate and cautious manner, so that if we do go down that road, we do it right and we do it in a way that mitigates any downsides, problems that might be associated with it."

At least one member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps -- has expressed reservations about repealing the law.

"Our Marines are currently engaged in two fights, and our focus should not be drawn away from those priorities," Conway said in November through a spokesman.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, a former Navy pilot, released a statement after the State of the Union address, saying "it would be a mistake" for the policy to be repealed.

"This successful policy has been in effect for over 15 years, and it is well understood and predominantly supported by our military at all levels," McCain said.

But others support the change. Gen. John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said it was time to repeal the law.

"As a nation built on the principal of equality, we should recognize and welcome change that will build a stronger, more cohesive military," Shalikashvili wrote in a letter to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, who supports repealing the policy.

Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institute said the real test will be in the barracks, with the rank-and-file members of the military.

"We can talk about this delicately or we can just be fairly direct," O'Hanlon said. "There are a lot of 18-year-old, old-fashioned, testosterone-laden men in the military who are tough guys. They're often politically old-fashioned or conservative; they are not necessarily at the vanguard, in many cases, of accepting alternative forms of lifestyle."

Nicholson predicted the matter will become a "non-issue," saying his organization knows of gays serving openly in the military now.

Asked whether he would return to the military if the policy is repealed, Nicholson said he would not hesitate and that he has wanted to return since his discharge in 2002.

"I speak five languages, including Arabic," he said. "There's nothing more that I'd love than to go back right now."

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