The Department of Defense mailed out 400,000 surveys to servicemembers on Wednesday, July 7, with half going to active servicemembers and the other half going to those in reserve units, asking them questions relating to the ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' policy and how they would react to openly gay military service.
Since DOD General Counsel Jeh Johnson and U.S. Army Gen. Carter Ham were named by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to head the Pentagon working group that planned the survey, questions have been raised – by members of Congress and leaders of LGBT advocacy groups – about whether the continued enforcement of DADT would impact the response rates of gay, lesbian and bisexual servicemembers.
The release of the survey to servicemembers on Wednesday led to some disputed contentions from LGBT advocacy groups Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and the Human Rights Campaign about its impact on LGB servicemembers.
Although a DOD Armed Forces Press Service report notes that servicemembers participating in the survey will initially have to log in using their common access card, or CAC, to a non-confidential site, they will then have the opportunity to get an ''untraceable PIN number they then can use to log on from any computer.''
According to the report, ''This tool will allow gay and lesbian servicemembers to remain anonymous and establish confidential communication, Ham explained.''
Despite this claimed safeguard, SLDN – which has long advocated for open service and defended servicemembers threatened with DADT discharges in court – raised a potentially significant roadblock to the working group on Thursday morning, July 8.
''At this time SLDN cannot recommend that lesbian, gay, or bisexual service members participate in any survey being administered by the Department of Defense, the Pentagon Working Group, or any third-party contractors,'' SLDN Executive Director Aubrey Sarvis said in the release statement. ''While the surveys are apparently designed to protect the individual's privacy, there is no guarantee of privacy and DOD has not agreed to provide immunity to service members whose privacy may be inadvertently violated or who inadvertently outs himself or herself.''
The Palm Center, a think tank that has been researching DADT-related issues since 1998, took a more measured response Thursday. Aaron Belkin, the center's director, said, ''This survey is part of the agreed-to process of dismantling 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' … We welcome the results and value the feedback of all the troops.''
HRC spokesman Michael Cole noted that HRC's ''primary concern'' has always been whether there's a need for survey at all. Although he didn't mention SLDN or its statement, Cole questioned some of the concerns raised by SLDN.
''There has been some misunderstanding about the various [Pentagon working group] research projects underway that requires clarification,'' Cole wrote. ''The current research, a Westat survey of 400,000 service members, does not ask participants their sexual orientation. Doing so would be a violation of the 'Don't Ask' provision of the current DADT law. Further, as we understand it, Westat is contractually obligated not to divulge any personally revealing information.
''In order for sexual orientation to be revealed, participants would have to type in their names and state that they are gay or lesbian. In those most unlikely of cases, Westat is contractually obligated to strip the information and scrub it before giving it to the Pentagon,'' he said. ''Lastly, we have been told that they are also not required to match a survey participant's identity with their individual answers to the survey.''
SLDN said in its statement that it had sought information from DOD about the ''text of the surveys, more information on possible certificates of confidentiality, and whether DOD or [the working group] could guarantee immunity from DADT and other armed services rules and regulations for servicemembers who are inadvertently outed by the surveys.
SLDN spokesman Trevor Thomas wrote in an e-mail to Metro Weekly, ''We did not hear back from the Pentagon on the above. We continue to wait for the information so that we can make an informed decision [about whether LGB servicemembers should respond to the survey].''