WASHINGTON - Congress should repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" law because the presence of gays in the military is unlikely to undermine the ability to fight and win, according to a new study released by a California-based research center.
The study was conducted by four retired military officers, including the three-star Air Force lieutenant general who in early 1993 was tasked with implementing President Clinton's policy that the military stop questioning recruits on their sexual orientation.
"Evidence shows that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly is unlikely to pose any significant risk to morale, good order, discipline or cohesion," the officers states.
To support its contention, the panel points to the British and Israeli militaries, where it says gay people serve openly without hurting the effectiveness of combat operations.
Undermining unit cohesion was a determining factor when Congress passed the 1993 law, intended to keep the military from asking recruits their sexual orientation. In turn, service members can't say they are gay or bisexual, engage in homosexual activity or marry a member of the same sex.
Supporters of the ban contend there is still no empirical evidence that allowing gays to serve openly won't hurt combat effectiveness.
"The issue is trust and confidence" among members of a unit, said Lt. Col. Robert Maginnis, who retired in 1993 after working on the issue for the Army. When some people with a different sexual orientation are "in a close combat environment, it results in a lack of trust," he said.
The study was sponsored by the Michael D. Palm Center at the University of California at Santa Barbara, which said it picked the panel members to portray a bipartisan representation of the different service branches. According to its Web site, the Palm Center "is committed to keeping researchers, journalists and the general public informed of the latest developments in the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy debate." Palm himself was "a staunch supporter of civil rights in the gay community," the site says.
Two of the officers on the panel have endorsed Democratic candidates since leaving the military — Army Lt. Gen. Robert Gard, who supports Barack Obama, and Marine Corps Gen. Hugh Aitken, who backed Clinton in 1996.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Robert Minter Alexander, a Republican, was assigned in 1993 to a high-level panel established by the Defense Department to examine the issue of gays in the military. At one point, he signed an order that prohibited the military from asking a recruit's sexual orientation.
Alexander said at the time he was simply trying to carry out the president's orders and not take a position. But he now believes the law should be repealed because it assumes the existence of gays in the military is disruptive to units even though cultural attitudes are changing.
Further, the Defense Department and not Congress should be in charge of regulating sexual misconduct within the military, he said.
"Who else can better judge whether it's a threat to good order and discipline?" Alexander asked.
Navy Vice Adm. Jack Shanahan said he had no opinion on the issue when he joined the panel, having never confronted it in his 35-year military career. A self-described Republican who opposes the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war, Shanahan said he was struck by the loss of personal integrity required by individuals to carry out "don't ask, don't tell."
"Everyone was living a big lie — the homosexuals were trying to hide their sexual orientation and the commanders were looking the other way because they didn't want to disrupt operations by trying to enforce the law," he said.