Reporting from Washington —
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told Congress on Friday that he strongly opposes any immediate legislative attempts to repeal or alter the ban on gays serving openly in the military.
Gates supports the eventual repeal of the ban. But in a letter to the House Armed Services Committee, he said that before Congress acts, he wants the Pentagon to first finish its review of the effect of any potential changes and develop an implementation plan.
Changing the law before the assessment is complete, Gates wrote, "would send a very damaging message to our men and women in uniform that in essence their views, concerns and perspectives do not matter on an issue with such a direct impact and consequence for them and their families."
Although Gates has cautioned against a repealing the law before the assessment is complete, he used his strongest language yet in the letter to the committee.
President Obama, in his State of the Union address, said he would work with Congress and the military to repeal the law this year.
Gates has set a December deadline for completing a review of the effects of changing the 1993 "don't ask, don't tell" law, which bars gays and lesbians from serving openly.
Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said that the review committee had only begun its work, and that the Defense Department would not be able to provide input on how the law should be changed until the panel better understood the effect it would have on the force.
"This process is still in its early stages, particularly in regards to getting input from our troopers," Morrell said. "That effort is only a couple weeks old."
Some House and Senate Democrats have pushed to repeal the law or put in place a moratorium on discharges as part of this year's Defense Authorization Act.
Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, asked Gates for his views on whether Congress should adjust the law this year.
In his letter, Gates said it was crucial that military members be allowed to express their opinions before any legal changes were made.
"Our military must be afforded the opportunity to inform us of their concerns, insights and suggestions if we are to carry out this change successfully," Gates wrote.
Pushing back any change until after the review has been completed would ensure that the debate would take place after the midterm elections, potentially making the politics slightly less contentious.
Defense officials have brushed aside talk of political motives, however. They say that the Pentagon is moving aggressively, but must sort through many issues, such as recruitment, healthcare, housing and family support.
"This issue touches all that we do and all that we are, and therefore it needs to be thoroughly studied," Morrell said. "But this is not an indefinite study. The secretary has set a hard deadline on this."
Some Pentagon officials also contend that the assessment period will give military officials time to adjust to a change in the policy. Military leaders say they need time to make sure noncommissioned officers tell their troops that discrimination or hazing against openly gay service members will not be tolerated.
Gates has emphasized that pushing social changes through the military must be done carefully.
"Secretary Gates has said time and time again that he has done change smart and he has done change stupid, and he is determined to not let this be done stupidly," Morrell said.