I sat down this morning with Rep. Joe Sestak to discuss the news around Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and specifically questions around implementation of a repeal. Many of you know Sestak's political history, but a little on his military background. Sestak is a decorated, former 3-star Vice Admiral in the Navy and the highest-ranking former military officer currently serving in this Congress. He also served as Director of Defense Policy at the National Security Council and as policy adviser to Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Vern Clark, where he oversaw a process, in his words, "to try to change the Navy". I was interested in talking to Rep. Sestak particularly because he had spent time overseeing structural change in the Navy and understands the process.
The main point Rep. Sestak made to me is that the year-long "study" that Sec. Gates announced at yesterday's hearing is an unnecessary delay, and change could be instituted far more rapidly. More in the transcript.
Adam: Thanks for joining me. First, I want to ask about your reactions to yesterday's Senate Armed Services hearing.
Rep. Sestak: I was very pleased to see the significant step that's being taken by the Defense Department to move forward and accept that Don't Ask, Don't Tell has to be repealed. I also believe, however, that the implementation study that's going to be done doesn't need to take a year. I believe it should be done in a shorter period of time. We have many lessons that we've learned from previous areas of integration: African Americans into the military, women into defense combat roles. During 1970 through '74, we had a strategic naval operation by Admiral Zumwalt- this is as I was entering- and he instituted many significant changes in our military and he did them quite rapidly. Now maybe you don't just want to do them with what is known as a "Z-Gram", a message that comes out that says, "implement this", but I believe we can do this more rapidly. That said, it's a significant step that we've taken because it's going to happen, but the Congress has to vote on it, so let's make sure we have everybody there, let's make sure we have the courage to do it and do it rapidly.
Adam: You talked about a "Z-Gram"- what is the fastest process that could and perhaps should be taken versus a long, drawn-out process?
Rep. Sestak: A "Z-Gram" was where the Chief of Naval Operations would say, here's the new policy. The best way to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell is to call the flag leadership together and then they meet with their commanders, then those officers meet with their subordinate commanders, and through the chain of command there's an explanation of why and how this policy is going to be changed. You have the chain of command, the leadership including the chief petty officers, who are the backbone of the Navy, understanding why. Then you set out, on this date certain, this will be the change. But the problem is they're going to study it for a year first, then there will be the implementation. And I just think that's an awful long time to study an implementation.
We are a military that understands processes very well. If anyone can go off and implement something rapidly, it's the military, because we do so many war plans, we do so many contingency plans, it's a part of our culture, we can take how to do this, stick it into a model, and do it in a fairly short timetable. I don't want to take away from the importance of having moved this out there, but at the end of the day, we know this is going to be done. The military is such a young organization, and we're well beyond any previous stereotypes. We can go about this business, and I would like to see Congress move on this rapidly. In fact, I believe it should be in the defense authorization bill, and that would take 2-3 months to get it through the process. It's about time to implement it.
Adam: What do you think our odds are of including it in and passing it through the defense authorization bill?
Rep. Sestak: Well, I think it's pretty darn good. But then, I've only been in politics a few years, but this is something where the Commander in Chief speaks, I think people have the courage to do the right thing. There are those on both sides of the aisle who are still opposed. However, I think at the end of the day, the Commander in Chief saying let's do this, with the military's leadership saying let's do this, you'll find that there'll be more than enough votes to make it happen.
Adam: The New York Times reported a few weeks ago that the Pentagon was considering separate shower facilities and locker rooms. In the past, there has been discussion of pilot programs. Is any of this necessary to go through during implementation?
Rep. Sestak: No. They're serving out there right now. They go into showers, non-gay or gay, right now into sports gyms. It's a way of life. Let's go out and make it happen. We don't need to go through a pilot program. We don't need separation of showers. We're beyond all that.
Adam: If the Pentagon implemented the timeline that you outline, how long do you think that should take?
Rep. Sestak: I would say two to three months. Because you can do this in a nice deliberate way and still finish it in that period of time. Someone used the phrase to me, the military is always "ready". We can do these things. I always remember former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Crowe once said, supposedly to President Clinton, just tell the military to do it and they'll do it. In the meantime, I think the President should consider an executive order, under a stop-loss provision, that when you don't want someone to be discharged while the study is being done, why kick people out that you know you're not going to in about a year? Second, I think those who were dismissed under the wrong policy should be permitted to come back in.
Adam: Thanks for taking the time to discuss this.
Rep. Sestak: Sure.