ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT -- The military should not begin preparing troops for a possible repeal of the ban on gay service until Congress takes action, despite worries the prohibition could be overturned by the courts, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday.
While the Pentagon is now armed with a plan to implement the repeal, any steps to begin training or preparing for the change would be too confusing for the troops, Gates said. Instead, he repeated his increasing frustration that Congress failed to act this week on legislation that would overturn the ban.
Pentagon leaders worry that the courts are more frequently ruling against the prohibition and could soon force the military to implement an abrupt and complicated change.
The military did a 10-month study to assess the attitudes of service members on the matter and map out a plan to put a potential repeal in motion.
But despite worries about court action, Gates said it "would be a serious mistake to start training and preparing before the law is changed, because I think it will just confuse the troops."
Speaking to reporters on the plane returning from a visit to troops in Afghanistan, Gates said he was "disappointed but not surprised" by the Senate delay.
He added that just about a week remains in Congress' lame duck session, and if they are unable to take action, then "my greatest worry will be that then we will be at the mercy of the courts and all of the lack of predictability that that entails."
Congress this week stalled action on a defense bill that would lift the ban, as senators sparred over a demand to vote on tax cuts first. The legislation would make implementation of the repeal contingent on certification by the president and the Pentagon that doing so wouldn't hurt military effectiveness.
The Pentagon study unveiled last week found two-thirds of troops thought repealing the so-called don't ask, don't tell law would have little affect their unit's ability to fight.
But the military services' top uniformed leaders cautioned about overturning the policy too soon. Several told lawmakers that allowing gays to serve openly during wartime could meet resistance from combat troops, and would be divisive and difficult.