"Attitudes and circumstances have changed," Powell said. "It's been a whole
generation" since the legislation was adopted, and there is increased
"acceptance of gays and lesbians in society," he said. "Society is always
reflected in the military. It's where we get our soldiers from."
At the same time, he said, "we've had a lot of experience watching what
other nations have done." Of 28 NATO member countries, a small minority
prohibit or restrict service based on sexual orientation.
Powell spoke in an interview the day after Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of
the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that it is his "personal belief"
that lifting the ban is "the right thing to do." Defense Secretary Robert M.
Gates said the Pentagon is preparing to repeal the law, despite significant
opposition in Congress.
"If the chiefs and commanders are comfortable with moving to change the
policy," Powell said, "then I support it." Public opinion polls since 2005
have consistently shown significantly more than half of all Americans
supporting a repeal.
Powell's opinion, announced in a statement he issued early Wednesday, gives
military leaders important additional backing in their push for a
nonrestrictive policy. President Obama has done little to advance a campaign
pledge to implement such a policy. Powell, a Republican who served as
secretary of state under President George W. Bush, threw his support to
Obama's presidential campaign in October 2008.
A question about sexual orientation had long been standard on military
recruitment forms, and acknowledgment of homosexuality led to automatic
rejection. Bill Clinton pledged during his 1992 presidential campaign to
abolish all such restrictions. But less than a week after his inauguration
in 1993, in a meeting with service chiefs arranged by then-Chairman Powell,
Clinton wilted under their opposition. Concerned that the controversy would
undermine his larger policy goals and aware that a congressional majority
opposed lifting all restrictions, Clinton ultimately backed a compromise
that Powell called "stop asking and stop pursuing."
During congressional hearings that year, liberal Democrats called Powell,
who is black, a hypocrite for not opposing discrimination based on sexual
orientation -- which he called a "behavioral characteristic" that could
undermine military order and discipline -- while denouncing discrimination
based on what he called the "benign, non-behavioral characteristic" of skin
The 1993 legislation did not require gays to disclose their sexual
orientation to the military but required their discharge if it became known
to their commanders. "My problem with the compromise [was] that it became
law," Powell said at an Aspen Institute conference two years ago. "I would
just as soon have seen it remain a policy so that the military could deal
Some this week objected to that view, as well as to Gates's statement
Tuesday that he will appoint a special military commission to study the
issue for up to a year. Clifford Alexander Jr., who served as Army secretary
under President Jimmy Carter, said that Obama should insist that any study
take no more than a month, and that the decision should be made by
civilians, not the military.
"It's not appropriate . . . to wait for a group of people in uniform to say,
'Okay, now it's time,' " Alexander said. "Get it done."
Obama, like Clinton, received strong support from gay voters, a group that
has expressed disappointment about his lack of action on his campaign
pledge. In an interview last spring, national security adviser James L.
Jones, a retired Marine general, said he had counseled Obama not to add the
"don't ask, don't tell" controversy to his already full plate in 2009. The
president, Jones said, took his advice.