Rumors Swirl That Defense Department May Gut DACOWITS

Supporters of a 51-year-old panel of civilian advisors tasked with advising the Pentagon on women's issues say the Department of Defense is out to gut the group and are calling for an all-out lobbying effort to keep it alive in its present form.

The Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, known in Pentagon-speak as DACOWITS, has been under fire for years from conservative women and military readiness advocates who say the group has become a conduit for political correctness in a military already degraded by shrinking budgets and poor morale.

Its existence has long been thought sacrosanct for political reasons, but that may be changing under the current administration and no-nonsense Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Proponents of the all-volunteer panel say the Bush administration is seeking to stall the authorization of the DACOWITS or try and gut its mission. There's even rumblings that the Defense Department will not reauthorize its charter when it expires at the end of February.

"We can confirm defense officials are now considering whether to keep the DACOWITS in existence, or to perhaps reconfigure it as a small group of paid consultants, negating the value citizen volunteers have made to the secretaries of defense for over 50 years," five former chairs of the panel said in a letter now circulating on Capitol Hill. The letter seeks help keep the committee alive.

Staffers on the House Armed Services Committee said they have heard the rumors as well, but nothing concrete. Fueling the speculation are the facts that the committee's fall conference was cancelled and the spring conference has yet to be scheduled. A new chair has yet to be appointed.

But an official at the Pentagon had a simple explanation for the cancellation of last fall's conference — 9/11. He said concern that the panel is endangered is "overstated." The DACOWITS is currently under review along with 34 other advisory committees to the secretary of defense, he said.

Officials are waiting for the reviews to be completed before planning the spring event, he said, and a new chair will be appointed then.

"[The] DACOWITS is not being singled out or targeted," said the Pentagon official. As for the reauthorization of the charter at the end of February, he added, "I would be very surprised if it weren't." But he said he did not want to speculate on the outcome of the reviews.

The DACOWITS is made up of some 30-40 civilian advisors who regularly visit military bases at home and abroad then report back to the Pentagon with recommendations for integrating women into the service. The panel's priorities through its history document the changing role and influence of women in the nation's armed forces.

In 1973, for example, it focused on greater outreach for women nurses and equal opportunities for young recruits under the college ROTC program. In recent years, the panel has issued opinions on women in everything from submarines to special operations helicopters to basic training.

In the spring of 2001, committee members demanded more diversity training all around, better health care for the 200,000 women (nearly 15 percent of the total) in the armed forces and services for pregnant women.

Elaine Donnelly, executive director of the Center for Military Readiness, has been fighting the DACOWITS for years and in January joined several other women representing mostly conservative organizations in calling for its demise. The panel's main goal, she said, is to get women in full combat roles, a goal that will only be achieved by lowering standards for all U.S. military personnel.

"During the Clinton years defense dollars were squandered on 'politically correct' social engineering projects that eroded morale and readiness in the military," she said. "The DACOWITS constantly promotes policies that would hurt the war effort by taking political correctness to extremes."

But supporters of the DACOWITS say losing its input and not moving forward on its recommendation would be akin to "pushing antiquated and fallacious ideas about 'a woman's place' in the military," according to the letter by the five former panel chairs.

The Pentagon official said folks shouldn't read too much into the situation at the DACOWITS. He assured that members are still conducting on-site reports at the nation's bases and the review being conducted is a perfunctory step taken by the new administration. "We just want to make sure what they are doing is relevant and that they're operating in the most efficient way," he said.