Pentagon survey on ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ criticized as biased

A Pentagon survey about gays and lesbians serving in the armed forces was criticized as biased Friday by gay veterans organizations, which predicted that it would produce skewed results on the potential effect of lifting the ban on homosexuals serving openly in the military.

Most of the criticism focused on a handful of questions in the lengthy survey related to whether unit readiness would suffer and the extent of concerns among service members about sharing housing, bath facilities and attending social functions with gay and lesbian personnel.

The online questionnaire was sent this week to 400,000 randomly selected military personnel by a Pentagon group studying the effect of repealing the current prohibition on openly gay service members, a policy known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The effort was ordered by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates after President Obama announced his support for repealing the ban this year.

Among the questions posed in the survey: “If don’t ask, don’t tell is repealed and you are working with a service member in your immediate unit who has said he or she is gay or lesbian, how would that affect your own ability to fulfill your mission during combat?” Respondents can answer with a range of choices from “very positively” to “very negatively,” as well as “no effect” or “don’t know.”

Critics said the wording of some questions made it likely that the responses would be overwhelmingly negative and that the results would be used to justify discriminatory measures against homosexual service members, even if the current ban is repealed.

“If you really want to assess whether repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ will harm military readiness, there are established ways to study that question, and this is not the way,” said Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, a research organization at UC Santa Barbara that made a portion of the survey public. “There are some things you don’t poll the troops about.”

Critics of the survey noted that it did not ask about the effect on unit morale or readiness due to the current policy of discharging troops found to be gay.

But Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell defended the survey in a hastily called news conference Friday afternoon. The questionnaire, he said, was a “very credible and professional survey” that had been designed by a polling firm working with members of the Pentagon group charged with studying a repeal of the ban.

The questions concerning attitudes about bath facilities, housing and the effect on unit effectiveness were necessary, he told reporters, because many service members had raised those issues in private forums and one-on-one discussions conducted by Pentagon officials.

The survey results would allow the Pentagon to understand the full extent of the concerns within the armed forces before proceeding with a repeal of the ban, he said. Morrell cited the possibility that “adjustments” to housing and bathing facilities might be considered if the ban is overturned.

Gates has set a December deadline for completing the review of the 1993 ban. The Pentagon has been concerned that many military members would decline to participate in the anonymous survey, despite privacy protections aimed at guarding the identities and sexual orientations of those who participate.

It was Gates who earlier ordered a doubling of the sample size from the original 200,000. Critics cited the large sample size as one of the troubling aspects of the survey, saying that it amounted in effect to polling the armed forces about the wisdom of proceeding with the repeal.

“It is simply impossible to imagine a survey with such derogatory and insulting wording, assumptions and insinuations going out about any other minority group in the military,” said Alexander Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United and a former U.S. Army interrogator. “Unfortunately, this expensive survey stokes the fires of homophobia by its very design.”

At least one gay rights group, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which provides legal help to service members discharged under the current law, recommended that troops should not participate in the questionnaire, because the current policy of discharging openly gay service members remains in force.

Morrell said nothing in the survey asks a participant to reveal his or her sexual orientation.