It is the sort of moment in congressional testimony that prompts reporters to look up from their writing and gauge the room for reaction. The nation's top military leader said in a striking statement last month that he supports the repeal of the 17-year-old ban on openly homosexual troops serving their country. "No matter how I look at this 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," Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "It comes down to integrity—theirs as individuals and ours as an institution."
Senior Pentagon officials say that Mullen had a sense that his remarks would be historic and, for this reason, put them in his opening statement. "He didn't want to wait to be asked" his opinion about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," says a senior military official. "He feels very strongly about the integrity issue. He's really been thinking about this for a long time."
It is, of course, ultimately up to Congress whether to pass legislation repealing the ban, and Mullen's statement prompted some finger-wagging from Arizona Republican John McCain. The senator—who three years ago said that he would support a change in the policy "the day that the leadership of the military comes to me and says, 'Senator, we ought to change the policy' "—pronounced himself "deeply disappointed" in the military leader. "Your statement obviously is one which is clearly biased, without the view of Congress being taken into consideration."
Perhaps equally important will be the input offered by the heads of each of the military services, which will go some way toward shaping opinion on Capitol Hill, and it is an open secret in the halls of the Pentagon that there have been some differences of opinion among the joint chiefs. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway, for his part, has made it known that he thinks the current policy works well enough. He also intimated that he has considerable reservations about lifting the ban. "My personal opinion is that unless we can strip away the emotion, agenda, and politics and ask [whether] we somehow enhance the war fighting of the United States Marine Corps by allowing homosexuals to openly serve, then we haven't addressed it from the correct perspective," he told the House Armed Services Committee.
Yet there is a considerable measure of support for repeal of the ban within the ranks of the armed forces. A 2006 Zogby poll found that 73 percent of military personnel surveyed said they were comfortable serving with openly gay or lesbian troops. On the eve of the testimony last month, former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs John Shalikashvili and Colin Powell, who previously opposed the move on the grounds that it would undermine discipline and order, expressed support for overturning the ban.
In the meantime, the Pentagon has launched a yearlong study of how such a step would be greeted by soldiers and their families and what it would entail. This includes considerations such as how it might affect recruiting and living arrangements and whether partners of gay soldiers would receive the free healthcare that spouses do. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that even after the passage of a repeal by Congress, he would like an additional year for the Pentagon to implement it. "I expect our approach may cause some to wonder why it will take the better part of a year to accomplish the task," Gates conceded.
That has indeed been the case. Last week, Carl Levin, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, along with Sens. Joe Lieberman, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Arlen Specter, among others, introduced legislation to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in an effort to accelerate the process. But pulling together enough votes to pass the bill could prove challenging, as was illustrated in a testy exchange during Mullen's Senate committee appearance. "If it was a trial, we would perhaps raise the 'undue command influence' defense," Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, said to Mullen on the heels of his opening remarks. This prompted the chairman to shoot back an uncharacteristically terse response: "This is not about command influence," Mullen said. "This is about leadership."