WASHINGTON-Those who are opposed to the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy are conducting an aggressive push to overturn the long-standing policy by year's end. Not surprisingly, nuanced details are getting lost in the spin cycle.
At the center of this 11th hour rush effort is a 10-month study on the matter released last week by the Pentagon. Opponents of the ban on homosexuals serving openly in the military quickly pushed out the report's findings. The media for the most part swallowed this story line: The study proves that allowing homosexual men and women to serve openly would present a low-risk to the military-even in a time a war.
"Today's report confirms that a strong majority of our military men and women and their families-more than two thirds-are prepared to serve alongside Americans who are openly gay and lesbian," said President Barack Obama upon the report's release.
The number most widely used-and the figure most likely to stick in the brain of casual readers-is 70 percent. That is the percentage of active duty troops surveyed who believe that a repeal of the policy would be positive, mixed, or of no consequence.
That high number, splashed on newspapers front pages and televisions screens across the nation last week, seems pretty convincing. Until you look more closely at the report.
Using this figure to suggest that a majority of service members support a change is misleading at best. The 70 percent number is inflated because it includes those who replied that they had mixed feelings. Ask any number of questions and you are likely to get a high percentage if you add to your tally the responses for positive, no effect, and mixed. That really only leaves out one response: negative.
An even closer examination of the 256-page report reveals more cause for concern:
- Only 9.4 percent said the change would have a mostly positive effect on a unit's combat performance.
- Nearly 60 percent of Marine and Army combat forces responded that there would be a negative impact to their units if the policy were repealed. That number climbs to almost 67 percent of those serving in Marine combat arms.
- Just 9 percent answered that having a gay or lesbian unit leader would be positive while 91 percent said it would have a negative or mixed impact on their unit's performance.
- Almost 24 percent said they would leave the military or think about leaving sooner than planned if the repeal occurs. That means that nearly 500,000 troops would depart. Meanwhile only 6 percent would recommend the service to others after a repeal.
"We will break the all-volunteer force," warned Frank Gaffney, the president for the Center for Security Policy.
Additionally, 91 percent say that open homosexuality would have a negative or mixed impact on combat performance; 11 percent answered they would feel positive about allowing open homosexuality; and a mere 5 percent said repeal would positively boost morale. Hardly ringing endorsements for change.
So how does the report deal with these findings? It simply dismisses them. In its summary, the reports authors noted that "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."
But the most condemning aspect of all regarding this report may be that just 28 percent of those who received the questionnaire actually bothered to complete and return it. Overall that means that the views of the report represent only 6 percent of the military's total force. Not a representative figure when it comes to making such a seismic social change in the institution assigned with keeping the nation safe.
Meanwhile, The Center for Security Policy and the Family Research Council, both conservative groups opposed to repeal, have released their own survey. It shows that almost 63 percent of active duty and retired military families oppose overturning the policy. This national survey included more than 10,000 members from each branch of the military.
This is why late last week during Senate hearings on the matter, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., expressed serious doubts. McCain did not hold back in a series of tense exchanges in which he seemed to lecture the testifying Defense Department leaders. He questioned why the Pentagon's report focused more on asking troops what impact repeal would have rather then asking them if a repeal should happen at all.
"What I want to know, and what it is the Congress' duty to determine, is not can our armed forces implement a repeal of this law, but whether the law should be repealed," McCain said. "Unfortunately, that key issue was not the focus of this study."
He blamed politics for the repel push and predicted that combat troops would leave the military in droves if the repeal moved forward.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, fought back. But their support for repeal took a hit just a day later when the military's top generals resisted throwing their weight behind any change during a time of war.
Also testifying before Congress, the chiefs of the Army, Marines, and Air Force publicly contradicted their Pentagon bosses.
"It's important that we're clear about the military risks," said Gen. George Casey, the top Army officer. "Repeal . . . would be a major cultural and policy change in the middle of a war."
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos warned, "Assimilating openly homosexual Marines into a tightly woven fabric of our combat units has strong potential for disruption. It will no doubt divert leadership attention away from an almost singular focus on preparing units for combat."
Air Force chief of staff Gen. Norton Schwartz added, "My best military judgment does not agree with the study assessment that the short-term risk to military effectiveness is low."
Only one of the military's top officers, Adm. Gary Roughead, the head of the Navy, sided with the Pentagon in agreeing that the ban could be removed with minimal risk.
With the House (under its current but soon to be evaporated Democratic majority) having already passed a repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the fate of the 17-year old policy rests with the Senate. About a dozen senators have said their vote for or against repeal would be based on the report's findings.
If wavering senators dig into the report, it is unlikely that they will find overwhelming support for such a change in a time of war. That combined with the concerns of the top generals and the fact that many of these senators will face voters in the next two elections cycles means that most moderate senators likely will not feel they have the necessary cover to vote for repeal.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has promised a Senate vote on the issue before the end of the year, which is likely based on an effort to appease the Democratic Party's disaffected liberal base before the next election cycle gears up.
Some Republicans like Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts have signaled they would back a repeal.
But Senate Republicans have proved adept so far this month at slow walking this and other items on the Democrats' agenda: Every GOP senator, even those backing repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," have pledged not to vote on any other bill this month until tax rate extensions and federal spending matters are resolved. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press that there simply is not enough time left in the year for the Senate to debate fully a repeal of the policy.
For conservatives, protecting the military policy is simply a matter of running out the December clock. If "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" survives this month, it will likely be a part of the military for some time: It is a safe bet that overturning the ban will not be on the congressional agenda of the Republican leaders in next year's decidedly more conservative House.
This may be one reason why Defense Secretary Gates, on Monday, told a group of sailors that he was "not particularly optimistic" that the policy would be changed any time soon.