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Center for American Progress

We Can’t Afford to Continue “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

We Can’t Afford to Continue “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

Congress Needs to Pass Legislation Ending This Unnecessary Policy

Congress should pass the fiscal year 2011 National Defense Authorization Act and end a policy that hurts our moral authority and national security, write Laura Conley and Alex Rothman.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen gestures during a briefing at the Pentagon. Adm. Mullen said that quickly repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is the “right thing to do.” (AP/Kevin Wolf)
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen gestures during a briefing at the Pentagon. Adm. Mullen said that quickly repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is the “right thing to do.” (AP/Kevin Wolf)

Over the past nine years the United States deployed troops to Afghanistan and launched an invasion of Iraq, pushing its ground forces nearly to the breaking point with back-to-back deployments. Over that same period more than 5,800 men and women were discharged from the U.S. military under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that bars openly gay men and women from serving in our armed forces. The upshot: We simply cannot afford to continue discharging patriotic men and women who are willing and able to serve their country on the basis of this unjust policy.

Congress put the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in place through the defense authorization bill in 1993. It now has a chance to correct this mistake. The vehicle to finally end this unjust and unnecessary law—the fiscal year 2011 National Defense Authorization Act—is awaiting approval by the Senate. It is imperative that the U.S. Senate seize this opportunity to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” by passing the NDAA during the upcoming lame duck session, with the current repeal language intact.

Those who wish to keep the policy in place argue that repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would undermine our national security. But decades of studies and the experiences of some of the United States’ closest allies provide ample reason to believe that this would not be the case.

Twenty-five countries—including some of our closest NATO allies—allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the armed forces. The United Kingdom dropped its ban on gays and lesbians in the military in January 2000. A Ministry of Defense review of the policy two years later found that the change had been accomplished smoothly with “no tangible impact on operational effectiveness, team cohesion, or Service life generally.” Since dropping the ban British troops have served alongside American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan with no known detriment to U.S. national security.

Moreover, studies prepared for the U.S. government confirm there is no valid national security reason to prevent gays and lesbians from serving openly. In 1957 the Navy’s Crittenden report found that gays and lesbians were no greater security risk than heterosexuals. And in the late 1980s the Defense Department’s Personnel Security Research and Education Center confirmed that open service would not be detrimental to national security. Dr. Nathaniel Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire, explains that the PERSEC reports “found no evidence showing that gays were unsuitable for military service and suggested that the policy was unnecessary and even damaging.”

Indeed, a growing body of evidence suggests that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is actively undermining U.S. national security. As Judge Virginia Phillips points out in her September 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.

Judge Phillips found that the discharges of these service members had “a direct and deleterious effect” on military readiness.

Historical evidence suggests that the Defense Department knows discharging service members solely based on sexual orientation runs counter to the military’s critical national security needs. Research conducted by the Palm Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara finds that the military slowed the discharges of gay and lesbian service members during the wars in Korea and Vietnam.

Frank also points out that in the run-up to the first Gulf War the Defense Department noted that discharges of gays and lesbians could be “‘deferred’ based on ‘operational needs.’” Some service members who openly admitted that they were gay or lesbian were still deployed.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” undermines the United States’ moral authority in addition to its national security. It forces gay service members to live a lie in order to defend their country and it sends the damaging message that it’s more important for a service member to be straight than to shoot straight—to take a cue from former Sen. Barry Goldwater.

It’s time for Congress to act in the interest of the American people by ensuring that the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act is passed with the current “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal language and sent to the president without delay.

Laura Conley is a Research Assistant and Alex Rothman is a Special Assistant with the National Security and International Policy team at American Progress.

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Alex Rothman

Policy Analyst