The Senator, the Secretary and the Service Chiefs

After the U.S. Senate failed to garner the votes needed to overcome a filibuster to proceed to debate on the National Defense Authorization Act on Sept. 21, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — who led the effort — appeared to take a certain amount of pleasure in the blow to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal effort.

At a meeting with reporters that followed the vote, McCain said, “I think the opinion of our service chiefs, all four, who stated in very strong terms that they wanted this survey completed before moving forward legislatively, was an important factor in keeping Republicans together.”

With a chuckle, he added, “And since we got two Democrats’ votes, both senators from Arkansas, we will now call it a bipartisan victory.”

A week later, however, McCain took further action — reported by Igor Volsky at the Wonk Room today — to continue in his post-vote victory lap celebration and to try and stop any further movement for DADT repeal.

In a letter sent to Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Sept. 28, McCain wrote, “Recent events regarding the Senate’s consideration of the [NDAA] and the unlikelihood that this legislation will be taken up until the 112th Congress, provides an opportunity for the Department to reconsider the manner in which it is studying the advisability of changing the [DADT] policy.”

He went on to tell Gates, “I urge you and Admiral Mullen to modify the review and the survey instrument, or to conduct supplemental surveys, aimed at ensuring that the question of whether the DADT policy should be changed is answered.”

Gates.jpgOn Oct. 25, Gates let McCain know — in no uncertain terms — what he thought of McCain’s victory lap and his preemptive assault on the Pentagon working group’s report.

Gates wrote, “I wholeheartedly agree with you about the critical importance of obtaining the views, concerns, and perspectives of those who will be most affected by a change in the DADT policy: our men and women in uniform. That is precisely why I directed that systematic engagement of the force and families be a centerpiece of the Department’s comprehensive review.”

McCain’s next point — about the Pentagon asking servicemembers “whether the DADT policy should be changed” — drew the sharpest rebuke Gates has given regarding questions about the review of the policy.

He responded, “It is not part of the working group’s mandate to ask Servicemembers the broad question of whether they think DADT should be repeal, which, in effect, would amount to a referendum. I do not believe that military policy decisions — on this or any other subject — should be made through a referendum of Servicemembers.”

Writing that the working group “has undertaken what may well be the most comprehensive study of a personnel issue in the history of the U.S. military,” Gates went on to detail the servicemember and spouse surveys and responses, the vistis to “over 50 military installations” and the website responses. He told McCain, “The Chairman and I personally reviewed the survey questions, as did the Service Chiefs.”

He ended, “The Chairman and I fully support the approach and efforts of the working group, as do the Service Chiefs.”

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Before the release of the letters, Gates already had announced that the long-awaited working group report on the implementation of DADT repeal will be released to Congress and the public on Tuesday, Nov. 30 – one day earlier than it had been expected.

The move was one of several from civilian and uniformed military officials in the first week of the lame-duck session of the 111th Congress that appeared to give momentum to advocates’ efforts to see the repeal this year of the 1993 law dictating military policy — and appear to take on added significance in light of the McCain-Gates letter exchange reported today.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, according to an American Forces Press Service report, said, “Secretary Gates is pushing all involved in the Comprehensive Review Working Group’s report to have it ready for public release on Nov. 30 in order to accommodate the desire of the Senate Armed Services Committee to hold hearings as soon as possible.”

In addition to Gates’s announcement, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made the case for repeal in a series of Sunday news show appearances. In part, his argument was a refutation of McCain’s preemptive criticism of the working group’s upcoming report — both in the letter to Gates and, after having received the response from Gates, to David Gregory on NBC’s Meet the Press on Nov. 14.

john_mccain.jpgOf McCain’s concern that the working group focused on the wrong issues, Mullen said on CNN’s State of the Union on Nov. 21, “Key is the leadership that it’s going to take to implement it when the law changes, specifically, and to understand as clearly as we could, the issues that surface from those it would affect the most, our men and women and their families.”

Later on Nov. 21, reiterating a point made by Gates and several members of Congress in recent weeks, Mullen told Christiane Amanpour on ABC’s This Week that “it’s very hard to predict what’s going to happen … from a legislative perspective.

“The other piece that is out there that is very real is the courts are very active on this, and my concern is that at some point in time the courts could change this law and in that not give us the right amount of time to implement it,” Mullen told her. “I think it’s much better done if it’s going to get done, it’s much better done through legislature than it is out of the courts.”

The views advanced by Gates and Mullen was not altogether surprising – though helpful for repeal advocates – because both men have been publicly in support of the repeal since their February testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. More surprising was the indirect pushback that McCain got in a National Journal interview with Adm. Gary Roughead, the chief of naval operations.

In the Nov. 21 article, Roughead said, “I think the survey, without question, was the most expansive survey of the American military that’s ever been undertaken. I think the work that has been done is extraordinary.”

Finally, Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz told reporters this morning that the working group review was a “good and healthy” process, although he refused to give his view of the report.

Although the new Marine Corps Commandant, James Amos, has expressed his view opposing DADT repeal, he is the only service chief to take that position in the course of discussions about the lame-duck Senate consideration of repeal — a significant change from when all four service chiefs wrote letters with varying levels of opposition to congressional action in May.

[FOR MORE, READ: "The (Military) Brass Tacks of Lame-Duck DADT Repeal," from Nov. 7.]

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