WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert Gates is unlikely to certify repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” before leaving office next week, senior defense and military officials said.
Two weeks ago, Gates said that he would finalize the repeal of the 18-year-old ban on openly gay troops if the service chiefs give him their OK before he retires on June 30. And in a message to commanders earlier this month, Army leaders said assessments on the progress and impact of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal training — underway since February — are due this Friday, leaving open a slim possibility that certification could come before Gates steps down.
Those reports will help the Army chief of staff’s office compile its final recommendations on repeal, which the defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen must review before certifying the change.
Gay rights groups have for weeks been pushing for Gates to wrap up the process, concerned that his replacement, CIA director Leon Panetta, might wait several more months before moving forward. Now, with Gates’ retirement just days away, that’s becoming less realistic.
Army spokesman Col. Thomas Collins could not say if the Friday deadline for the Army assessments means its recommendation will be completed in the next few days. He did say that repeal training is on pace with the Army’s original timeframe estimates.
Nearly all active-duty soldiers will have completed the training by July 15. The sessions inform servicemembers about changes in law and policies post-repeal, as well as instruction about how troops should act around gay colleagues and reminders about existing rules regarding public displays of affection.
Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps officials said they expect to have more than 95 percent of their forces trained before the end of the month.
Once the defense secretary certifies that the services are ready for the repeal, the law will come off the books after an additional 60-day waiting period.
Until that occurs, the law remains in effect, although only one servicemember has been processed out of the military under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law in the last eight months.
Last week, in an interview with David Letterman, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said he expects repeal to take place “certainly in the next couple of months” but offered no firm timetable. In his confirmation hearing, Panetta said he supported the repeal, but would not say when he expected it to be finalized.
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the pro-repeal Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said his group is pushing for repeal to occur before the end of the month not because officials doubt Panetta’s commitment, but because closeted gay troops have already waited too long.
“Their anxiety level will increase if the repeal is not certified before Gates departs,” he said.
However, Sarvis said he believes certification could take place within a few weeks of Panetta taking office.