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WASHINGTON — As lawmakers prepare to debate the military’s ban on open homosexuality, they do so with a conspicuous absence of guidance from the president and his most senior military leaders.

Congress has been slow to take up President Barack Obama’s campaign call to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, with the only official movement this year coming in the form of promised but still unscheduled hearings in both chambers this fall.

Meanwhile, opponents and supporters of the ban have spent months mobilizing: opponents of the ban lining up affected servicemembers to testify; supporters gathering retired commanders to speak about the negative impact on morale and readiness.

But both sides concede that no military figures would have the impact of a few supportive or dismissive words from Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, two men whose personal feelings on the matter have been closely guarded.

Even with hearings expected within weeks, the leaders are sending few signals on whether they prefer the policy and how they wish to proceed.

“Where do they really stand?” asked Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the anti-ban Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.

“What are they going to say, and when are they going to say it?”

Leaders in the House and Senate Armed Services committees haven’t committed to calling Gates or Mullen into the hearings, but House chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., said one of the main goals would be “to understand the perspectives of the civilian and military leadership of the Department of Defense.”

Mullen and Gates have said only that the military will implement whatever law Congress passes and that no action will be taken without clear instruction from lawmakers.

On Capitol Hill, staffers have said privately that lawmakers are hoping for a more definitive stance from DOD leadership. And recently Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., wrote Gates and Obama, urging them to come forward with their recommendations for addressing the 15-year-old ban.

“At a time when we are fighting two wars, I do not believe we can afford to discharge any qualified individual who is willing to serve our country,” Reid wrote.

Neither Gates nor Obama responded publicly, although retired Gen. James Jones, Obama’s national security adviser, said in a CNN interview Sunday that the president was waiting for the right moment.

“I know this is an issue that he intends to take on at the appropriate time,” Jones said. “The Defense Department is doing the things it has to do to prepare, but at the right time, I’m sure the president will take it on.”

Previously, Gates has said he is committed to the president’s recommended change “in a way that is least disruptive to our troops.”

In July, he told reporters that in the meantime he was looking into a “more humane” application of the law, asking Pentagon lawyers if servicemembers outed against their will could be permitted to remain in the military. Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said there has been no movement on that front.

Gay rights groups initially touted Gates’ idea as a sign the defense secretary had embraced abolishing “don’t ask,” but since then have expressed concern that it hasn’t advanced.

Capt. John Kirby, spokesman for Mullen, said in a statement that the chairman “understands the President’s intent with regard to repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ and he desires to move forward in a thoughtful, deliberate manner, especially in this time of war.”

And in a podcast on the Pentagon Channel in August, Mullen said he had spoken with all of the service chiefs and combatant commanders in anticipation of a change in the law, noting that Obama has made his intentions clear on the matter.

Joint Force Quarterly, the chairman’s in-house magazine, last month published an essay by Col. Om Prakash, a student at the National War College, asserted that “there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that unit cohesion will be negatively affected if homosexuals serve openly.”

Kirby quickly downplayed the significance of the article, saying the chairman does not approve articles for the magazine, instead leaving that up to editorial staff at National Defense University.

When asked last month by the Senate Armed Services Committee for his view on the “don’t ask” law, Mullen’s written reply said only that “DoD policy must comply with the public law and only the Congress and the President can change the law.

“My responsibility is to guide the Armed Forces of the United States consistent with the law.”

Proponents of keeping homosexuals out of the military say such statements show that Gates and Mullen are simply following orders, and not hinting any support for overturning the ban — “a risky military social experiment,” according to Elaine Donnelly, president of the conservative Center for Military Readiness.

In June 2008, the House Armed Services Committee held the first hearing on “don’t ask” since its adoption in 1994, but that hearing did not include commentary from military leaders or active-duty personnel.

House and Senate officials are expected to finalize their plans for hearings this month. This time around, Kirby said, Mullen would “welcome the opportunity to participate in that debate.”


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