WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's top military adviser said Sunday the Pentagon has enough challenges _ including two wars _ without rushing to overturn a decade-old policy that bans gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military and incites political and social factions on both sides.
Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he is working on an assessment of what _ if any _ impact overturning "don't ask, don't tell" policies would mean for the military and its culture. In the meantime, the Pentagon plans to follow the existing rules, which say gays and lesbians can serve in the military if they do not disclose their sexuality or engage in homosexual behavior.
"The president has made his strategic intent very clear, that it's his intent at some point in time to ask Congress to change this law," Mullen said. "I think it's important to also know that this is the law, this isn't a policy. And for the rules to change, a law has to be changed."
During his presidential campaign, Obama pledged to overturn the Clinton-era policy and promised that gays and lesbians could serve openly in uniform. But he has made no specific move to do so since taking office in January. He has not set a deadline for repeal, has given the Pentagon no direct orders and has kept Capitol Hill guessing about when he might ask for a change in the law.
Mullen said the military would not start on a timeline until Congress acts.
Obama's go-it-slow approach has drawn criticism from gay rights groups, including activists and fundraisers who met in Dallas to organize a grass-roots lobbying effort to force Obama's hand.
Last week, Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs stood at the White House podium and reiterated the president's eventual goal, although he said the administration was fine with Congress taking the lead on the potentially divisive subject.
"Try as one may, a president can't simply whisk away standing law of the United States of America," Gibbs said. "But if you're going to change the policy, if it is the law of the land, you have to do it through an act of Congress."
Gibbs' counterpart at the Pentagon issued a similar statement.
Obama's top advisers _ in uniform and in politics _ have urged restraint despite the issue's resonance among the president's left-flank base. They want Obama to move with a deliberate plan that accounts for all potential consequences during wartime.
Retired Marine Gen. James Jones, the White House's national security adviser, said this month he wasn't sure the policy would be overturned.
"We have a lot on our plate right now," he said.
There is concern that reopening the socially and politically divisive question of gays and lesbians in the ranks could place an additional burden on a military stretching to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Buying time serves both the Pentagon's desire for caution and Obama's desire not to pick an unnecessary fight. Former President Bill Clinton never fully recovered from his miscues over the gays in the military issue.
Mullen appeared Sunday on ABC's "This Week."