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Gates appoints panel for potential end of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates established a Defense Department panel here Feb. 2 to prepare the military for the potential elimination of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that bans openly gay people from serving in the armed forces.

The working group is tasked to assess the relevant issues within a year in an effort to prime the department to adapt to any changes Congress makes to the 17-year-old law underpinning the controversial personnel policy -- a legislative move supported by Secretary Gates, President Barack Obama and the nation's top military officer.

"I fully support the president's decision," Secretary Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "The question before us is not whether the military prepares to make this change, but how we best prepare for it."

Noting the political climate in which the policy debate is playing out, Secretary Gates said a guiding principle of the department's effort will be to minimize disruption and polarization within a military engaged in two wars.

The working group, to be headed by Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon's top lawyer, and Army Gen. Carter Ham, the commander of U.S. Army Europe, will immediately begin reviewing the issues associated with implementing a repeal to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

"The mandate of this working group is to thoroughly, objectively and methodically examine all aspects of this question, and produce its finding and recommendations in the form of an implementation plan by the end of this calendar year," Secretary Gates told lawmakers.

Appearing alongside Secretary Gates was Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who echoed the secretary's endorsement of repealing the policy.

"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," Admiral Mullen said. "No matter how I look at this issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens."

The chairman said "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is an issue that strikes at the integrity of the U.S. armed forces as an institution and that of individual servicemembers, who Admiral Mullen believes would accommodate a change to the policy, praising troops' adaptability. But he also acknowledged the likelihood that repealing the law would lead to a disruption in the forces.

"We would all like to have a better handle on these types of concerns, and this is what our review will offer," Admiral Mullen told the Congressional panel.

The hearing on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" comes after President Obama announced in his State of the Union address last week his desire to end the policy.

"This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are," President Obama said. "It's the right thing to do."

As the group undertakes the year-long review and assessment, Secretary Gates said the department also will take measures to implement the current "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy more fairly.

"The Department of Defense understands that this is a very difficult, and in the minds of some, controversial policy question," Secretary Gates told lawmakers. "I am determined that we in the department carry out this process professionally, thoroughly, dispassionately, and in a manner that is responsive to the direction of the president and to the needs of the Congress as you debate and consider this matter."