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The Ball Is in the Senate’s Court on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

End This Discriminatory Law That Harms Military Readiness

SOURCE: AP/Ann Heisenfelt

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), center, listens to comments by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on November 18, 2010, to push for the repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. The Pentagon's report should clear the way for the Senate to reconsider the fiscal year 2011 National Defense Authorization Act, which contains the language needed to end this unjust and unwise policy.

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The Pentagon will soon release its comprehensive study on how to implement the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which bans gays and lesbians from serving openly in the U.S. armed forces. This report should clear the way for the Senate to reconsider the fiscal year 2011 National Defense Authorization Act, which contains the language needed to end this unjust and unwise policy. The House already approved the act.

The NDAA was the vehicle used to implement the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in 1993 and it would be fitting for Congress to move forward with the repeal language in this year’s bill. Far more important than symbolism, though, is the national security imperative to pass NDAA expediently with the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal language intact. Holding up the bill would perpetuate this discriminatory policy and adversely affect U.S. national security.

Since “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was instituted in 1993 more than 14,000 service members have been discharged under the policy. These discharges waste taxpayer dollars by kicking out troops our armed forces have already spent thousands and in some cases millions of dollars training. They also remove critical personnel from a military already stretched thin by persistent conflict.

Judge Virginia Phillips made this same point in her September 2010 ruling in Log Cabin Republicans v. the United States of America and Robert M. Gates: “Many of those discharged pursuant to [“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”] had education, training, or specialization in so-called ‘critical skills,’ including Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, or Korean language fluency; military intelligence; counterterrorism; weapons development; and medicine.”

Further, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” prevents some qualified service members who are not open about their sexual orientations from remaining in the armed forces. During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has lowered standards in order to meet recruiting goals. By 2008 it was offering nearly one in eight recruits a moral waiver allowing them to join despite past felonies or misdemeanors. An analysis by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, showed that the military could have retained more qualified service members if “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” had not been in place.

Their research found that an average of about 4,000 service members each year would stay in the military if they were allowed to be open about their sexual orientation, including troops discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and service members who currently leave voluntarily because they are tired of living a lie.

Moreover, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy limits the military’s access to some of the best and brightest potential recruits—the type of enlisted men and women and officers this country needs in an increasingly insecure global environment. Many of the nation’s top universities initially banned the Reserve Officer Training Corps program, which commissions about 60 percent of new active, Guard, and Reserve Army officers, in response to the Vietnam War. Their opposition to ROTC now centers on the discrimination imposed by the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

Harvard University, which does not allow an ROTC program on campus, has indicated that it is now open to reinstituting the program but not until “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is repealed.

The most progress toward repealing this policy this year came from the U.S. judicial system. Judge Phillips’s ruling led to a temporary injunction against the enforcement of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” And in September a federal district court in Washington state ordered the Air Force to reinstate Major Margaret Witt, who was discharged under the policy.

In the latter case the court found that Witt could not be discharged unless the government proved that doing so was necessary for “good order, morale, and discipline” within her unit—a standard it was unable to meet.

Any progress toward repealing DADT is encouraging. But weakening the policy through patchwork legal decisions creates uncertainty for people serving or considering serving in the military. Repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” outright through the NDAA would eliminate this ambiguity, end an unacceptable practice of discrimination in the U.S. armed forces, and improve U.S. national security.

Once the Senate receives the Pentagon’s report it should act without delay to pass the NDAA and end this unnecessary and unfair policy.

Lawrence J. Korb is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Laura Conley is a Research Assistant at the Center. 

More from CAP on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”:

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