Opening Statement of Sen. Carl Levin, Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing on ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’

Washington, D.C.–(ENEWSPF)–December 2, 2010.  The committee meets this morning to receive testimony on the Department of Defense’s comprehensive review of the issues associated with repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” We will hear from Defense Secretary Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mullen, as well as the co- chairs of the Department’s working group on this issue, DoD General Counsel Jeh Johnson and General Carter Ham. Tomorrow, we will hear from the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Service Chiefs on this report.

To examine this issue, the Department launched an unprecedented effort to seek the views of our troops and their families. Mr. Johnson, General Ham, your approach, and the report you have delivered, are even-handed and respectful. You were given a very tough job. Your performance is of great value to our country.

Today’s hearing is part of the Committee’s own review of this issue, which has been before us for nearly a year. Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen testified at a hearing on this policy on Feb. 2. Each of the Service Chiefs were asked for their views during annual hearings on the defense budget in February and March. And on March 18, the committee heard testimony from outside experts in support of, and in opposition to, the policy.

Both the House of Representatives and this Committee have approved legislation that would repeal the statute underlying “don’t ask, don’t tell” if the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs certify to Congress that all of the following conditions have been met:

(A) They have considered the recommendations contained in the Working Group report and the report’s proposed plan of action;
(B) The Department of Defense has prepared the necessary policies and regulations to implement a repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell; and
(C) The implementation of these policies and regulations is consistent with the standards of military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention.

Upon such a certification, repeal would take effect after 60 days, a period during which Congress could review the Department’s action.

This provision is included in the National Defense Authorization Bill for Fiscal Year 2011 approved by this Committee, and it is my hope that the Senate will shortly take up this legislation.

The requirement for the certification by the President, Secretary of Defense, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is a key element of this legislation as it ensures that a repeal of this policy would be conducted in an orderly manner with adequate opportunity to prepare for the change. This certification requirement, as well as the 60 day period before repeal takes effect, were included at the initiative of our late, esteemed colleague, Senator Byrd.

Attitudes in the nation and our military have shifted in the years since the adoption of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in 1993. The report before us provides important new evidence that the time for a change has come. It demonstrates that for the vast majority of our troops, this change would be no big deal. They believe we can open our military to service by gay and lesbian service members who would no longer have to conceal their sexual orientation, and that we can do so without reducing our military effectiveness. A large percentage of troops say they have already served with gay and lesbian coworkers who were effective members of their units.

Secretary Gates has spoken eloquently on why decisions such as this are not subject to a referendum of service members. I would add that, if referenda were the basis for decisions on who can serve, President Truman would not have racially integrated the armed forces in 1948, when, as the Working Group’s report points out, 80 percent or more of service members opposed racial integration. And in this case, while there has been no referendum, the Working Group’s review gives us persuasive evidence that repeal is not a problem for most troops. As the Co-chairs wrote, “If the impact of repeal was predominantly negative, that would have revealed itself in the course of our review.”

A change in policy, while needed, will not be without its challenges. The report provides important and useful recommendations to address those challenges. These recommendations focus on the importance of leadership, of training, and of education, and I support that focus.

But in my view, one of the most striking findings of this report relates to the experiences of service members themselves. An overwhelming 92 percent of troops who have worked with a gay or lesbian coworker say there was no negative effect on their unit. The message here is that when our troops have actually worked with someone they believe is gay or lesbian, they learn that those troops can get the job done.

As the report states: “Both the survey results and our own engagement of the force convinced us that when Service members had the actual experience of serving with someone they believe to be gay, in general unit performance was not affected negatively by this added dimension.” The report also states: “much of the concern about ‘open’ service is driven by misperceptions and stereotypes about what it would mean if gay Service members were allowed to be ‘open’ about their sexual orientation. … we conclude that these concerns about gay and lesbian Service members who are permitted to be ‘open’ about their sexual orientation are exaggerated, and not consistent with the reported experiences of many Service members.”

In other words, real-world experience is a powerful antidote to the stereotypes that are a major source of the discomfort some feel about ending “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Repeal of this policy would bring our military in line with some of our closest allies, including Great Britain and Canada. The department’s review found that resistance to openly gay and lesbian service members among troops in those two countries was much higher at the time they changed their policies than it is in our military today. But they changed their policies, and as the Working Group found, “the actual implementation of change in those countries went much more smoothly than expected, with little or no disruption.”

Most important, ending this discriminatory policy is the right thing to do. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is an injustice to thousands of patriotic Americans who seek only the chance to serve the country they love without having to conceal their sexual orientation. Anyone who believes that maintaining this policy is necessary to preserve our military’s fighting effectiveness should read this report.

Time and again, our military has overcome obstacles to reflect the diversity of American society, and in doing so, it has helped strengthen the fabric of our society while keeping us safe. We can end “don’t ask, don’t tell” and maintain our military strength, respect our troops and their families, allow patriotic Americans to serve their country without regard to sexual orientation, and uphold the principle that service and advancement in our military are based on merit alone. Again, I thank the witnesses for their impressive work.