US military changes mind over ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy on homosexuality

Defence Secretary Robert Gates urges Congress to allow lesbians and gays to serve openly in US military; Anger and confusion in Ivory Coast, as results of first presidential election in a decade are torn up; British government considers selling its intelligence agencies' services to private companies. All this and more in today's security briefing.
Luke Heighton
1 December 2010

The Pentagon has today released the results of its survey into the attitudes of current service personnel towards the proposed repeal of the US military’s much-maligned ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy established in 1993. Currently the military is forbidden to inquire into a service member’s sexuality, but is still permitted to expel someone on the grounds of their sexual orientation.

Speaking at a press conference to announce the report’s findings, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates urged congress to allow gay troops to serve openly. Gates said that the repeal of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ did not pose a serious threat to unit cohesion, benefits, housing or training, and could be enacted “without posing a serious risk to military readiness.” He also rejected the introduction of separate bathrooms and living quarters for gay and lesbian troops – a proposal previously advocated by some figures within the military.

The 267-page report considered submissions by more than 115,000 service personnel and their spouses, 70% of whom felt that the presence of an openly gay or lesbian colleague in his or her unity would have “positive, mixed or non-existent” effects on the unit’s ability to perform its basic tasks. Almost the same proportion of respondents – 69% – said they believed they had already worked alongside a gay or lesbian service member. A survey released by the Pew Research Center on Monday found that amongst the population as a whole 58% were in favour and 27% against gays and lesbians serving openly in the military. Breaking the figures down according to voting tendencies, at least one survey has delivered similar results. According to the Washington Post-ABC News, 82% of Democrats, 77% of independents, and 64% of Republicans are in favour of allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly. Others have been more sceptical, arguing that that when it comes to determining whether Americans support allowing gays to serve in the military, the wording of the question is key.

Whether the existing law will be repealed any time soon, however, is a moot point. In clearly expressing the view that ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ should be removed from the statute book by the end of the year, Robert Gates was nevertheless extremely cautious when it came to the issue of practical reform, citing a lack of preparation. The likelihood of a repeal has also been cast into doubt by the Congressional gains made by the GOP in last month’s elections - the House has voted in favour of repeal of the existing law, but the Senate is stalling - and it remains to be seen whether the Administration will be able to translate opinion poll results into concrete action. Evidence is also starting to appear that gay rights groups may be losing faith in the Obama administration's willingness or ability to pass legislation aimed at ending discrimination. 

In an interesting side-note to the debate, another piece of legislation included in the National Defense Authorization Act, the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM, is also set to come before Congress before the end of the fiscal year 2011. First proposed in 2001 and sponsored by a cross-party mixture of Democrats and Republicans, the DREAM Act is seen by its supporters as a means of enabling children brought into the country illegally by their parents, yet who have spent a minimum of five years in the US subsequently, to earn the right to remain. Under the proposals ‘illegal alien’ minors “of good moral character”, who graduate high school, and who go on either to complete a bachelor’s degree or serve no fewer than two years in the uniformed services, would be granted conditional permanent residency in the US. In the last couple of days it has been reported that a coalition of labour and advocacy groups is launching a “six-figure” advertising campaign targeting Republican congressmen in the hope of passing the act before Congress retires. The group is believed to include Florida Sen. George LeMieux; Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe; Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown; Nevada Sen. John Ensign; and Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison. A handful of pro-DREAM Act protesters have also been released following their arrest outside the offices of Sen. Hutchison’s local office in San Antonio on Monday.

Dispute over Ivory Coast election prompts fears of violence

The tension is growing and international concern mounting after today’s decision to delay releasing the results of Ivory Coast’s first presidential election in a decade. The election was thrown into chaos last night after Damana Adia Pickass – a prominent supporter of the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo – grabbed and tore up the election results as they were about to be announced to journalists by the electoral commission’s spokesman. Security forces then forcibly removed journalists from the commission’s headquarters.

There is now a heavy security presence on the Abidjan, amidst pressure to formally announce the results before the expiration of today’s official deadline. France, which has a significant military presence of its own close to the capital, has also made clear that it will not hesitate to intervene should French nationals or interests be threatened.

Up until last night, international observers had described Ivory Coast’s elections as “generally fair”, though supporters of Gbagbo’s northern opponent, Alassane Ouattara, were quick to denounce Pickass’ latest actions as indicative of a regime attempting to “confiscate power.” Gbagbo’s supporters in the south say voters in the north of the country, which is still held by rebels following 2002-2003’s civil war, were subject to widespread intimidation as they tried to cast their ballots.

Support for the two candidates is roughly equal, with Gbagbo having previously polled 38% in the first round of voting, and Outarra 32%. However, Outarra believes the results of the second round should reflect a change in his favour, after he gained the endorsement of the third-place hopeful ahead of round two.

As reported in the Financial Times, one commentator with considerable knowledge of the Ivory Coast, Samir Gadio, believes that although the security forces in the south have predominantly supported Gbagbo, a potential win for Ouattara “would test the army’s loyalty to the constitution”.

Ivory Coast is one of the world’s key exporters of cocoa, the price of which has spiked sharply since the announcement of this latest crisis. Trade and development have been consistently hindered by sectarian violence between the predominantly Muslim north and the Christian south.

Security minister gives evidence before House of Commons Select Committee

Whilst the mother of British hacker Gary McKinnon gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee yesterday (footage from which is available here), today it was the turn of the government’s advisor on national security, Minister of State for Security Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, to speak to the Science and Technology Committee. The committee held its final evidence session planned for its current inquiry, focusing on how the government intends to deal in future with such potentially large-scale problems as a swine flu outbreak, volcanic ash, space weather and cyber attacks. No video of this particular session is available yet, but you can still glean some insight into how the coalition’s planned £650m National Cyber Security Programme might shape up here.

One section of the UK’s intelligence services, the top secret Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, has already been privatised, appearing on the stock exchange in 2006 as Qinetiq. But in an interesting counterpoint to the current furore over the release of a few NOFORN documents, one early story to emerge from the latest sitting was Neville-Jones’ suggestion that GCHQ might soon sell certain of its intelligence gathering and analysis services to private companies.

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