Adm. Michael G. Mullen said that the military still needs to conduct a review… (Michael Reynolds / EPA )
Reporting from Washington — The nation's top military officer said Tuesday that he supported allowing gays to openly serve -- adding a powerful voice to the deeply controversial issue as the Pentagon announced steps to prepare for possibly ending its 17-year-old policy on homosexuality.
Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the military would follow the 1993 law known as "don't ask, don't tell." Nonetheless, he said, his personal views were firm.
"Speaking for myself and myself only, it is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do," Mullen said.
His views are particularly important in the debate. It was one of his predecessors, Gen. Colin L. Powell, who played a major role in derailing then-President Clinton's bid to allow gays to serve openly in the military. In 1993, Powell called the policy a "healthy compromise." But in December 2008, he said the ban should be reviewed.
Mullen on Tuesday announced a yearlong Defense Department review that he said would examine the effects of repealing "don't ask, don't tell," as well as gauge changes that would have to be made in military benefits, rules and facilities.
More immediately, Pentagon officials said that within 45 days they would decide how to change the way the military enforced the law -- which prohibits gays from serving openly and can result in involuntary discharge. More than 14,000 service members have been booted out after being accused of being gay or having said that they were.
Lawmakers, meanwhile, said that they would consider temporarily suspending the requirement that the Pentagon enforce the law. But President Obama wants "don't ask, don't tell" rescinded this year. And although some in Congress favor an immediate repeal, others may want to wait for the results of the Pentagon review.
Advocates for gay service members said that they were disappointed with the Pentagon's timeline.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said during the hearing that in addition to the yearlong review, a change in the law should be implemented over the course of another year. Gates and other officials believe that it is crucial to move slowly so that the changes are understood and accepted by service members.
Gates said that he understood that gays and their supporters might be frustrated with the length of the review, but he said that the Pentagon needed time to minimize disruption and to talk to service members about the change.
"The question before us is not whether the military prepares to make this change, but how we best prepare for it. We have received our orders from the commander in chief and we are moving out accordingly," Gates said. "However, we also can only take this process so far, as the ultimate decision rests with you, the Congress."
By relaxing the law's enforcement, Gates said, military officials could prevent the policy from being used vindictively. Gates said that the department could require that more senior officers initiate and conduct investigations of sexual orientation. He also said the military could "raise the bar" on what counts as reliable evidence in such inquiries.
"Overall, we can reduce the instances where a service member who is trying to serve the country honorably is outed by a third person with a motive to harm the service member," Gates said.
Democrats at the hearing were supportive of Gates and Mullen.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, supports ending the ban. After the hearing, he said that he had not decided how to approach the issue legislatively. One possibility is including a moratorium on discharges of gay service members in this year's defense authorization bill, he said.
Republicans, however, voiced support for the "don't ask, don't tell" law. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the senior Republican on the committee, said that while imperfect, the policy had worked and should not be changed.
In 2006, McCain said in an interview that he would seriously consider dropping the ban if the military leadership advocated a change. But Tuesday, he appeared in no mood to reverse his opposition. Instead, he accused Gates and Mullen of trying to force through a change in the law.
"I'm happy to say that we still have a Congress of the United States that would have to pass a law to repeal 'don't ask, don't tell,' despite your efforts to repeal it in many respects by fiat," McCain said.
Mullen's support for repeal comes as Obama heads into a difficult year with a fractured political coalition.