Colin Powell shifts stance on 'don't ask, don't tell' policy

By Karen DeYoung - Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, February 3, 2010; 6:05 PM

Retired Army Gen. Colin L. Powell, who opposed allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the armed forces when he was the nation's top military officer, said Wednesday that he supports efforts to lift the ban on their service.

"Attitudes and circumstances have changed" in the 17 years since Congress, with strong military backing, mandated the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, Powell said in a statement issued by his office. Noting that he has said for the past two years that Congress should review the legislation, Powell said he "fully supports the approach" outlined in testimony Tuesday by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee that it is his "personal belief" that lifting the ban is the "right thing to do;" Gates said the Pentagon is preparing to repeal the ban, despite significant opposition from senior Republican, and some Democratic, lawmakers.

Backing from Powell provides the current military leadership with significant additional support. A registered Republican who served as secretary of state under President George W. Bush, he threw his support to Barack Obama's presidential campaign in October 2008.

Although gay men and lesbians do not have to reveal their sexual orientation to the military under legislation adopted in 1993, their discharge is required if it becomes known to their commanders. It was Powell, then Joint Chiefs chairman, who first proposed the "don't ask, don't tell" formulation as a compromise less than a week after President Bill Clinton's inauguration, as Clinton moved to implement a campaign promise to end an absolute prohibition against military service by gay men and lesbians.

President Obama, who like Clinton received strong support from gay voters, made a similar promise during his own campaign. Like Clinton, too, he has delayed acting on the emotional issue to avoid distraction from his economic and foreign policy priorities, according to White House aides.

Powell said in 1993 that he was not morally opposed to homosexuality, but that he believed their open presence in the military would undermine morale and order. In his statement Wednesday, he said that "the principal issue has always been the effectiveness of the Armed Forces and order and discipline in the ranks."

"I strongly believe that this is a judgment to be made by the current military leadership and the Commander in Chief," Powell said. "It is also a judgment Congress must make," he said, adding, "I fully support the new approach" presented by Gates and Mullen.