Transcript: Interview with 'don't ask, don't tell' report co-authors
The co-authors of the Pentagon's long-awaited report on the impact of ending the military's "don't ask, don't tell" law worked closely together in the past nine months, but did not speak publicly until this week.
The Federal Eye spoke exclusively on Monday with Defense Department General Counsel Jeh C. Johnson and Army Gen. Carter F. Ham as they prepared for the public release of their report.
A profile of Johnson and Ham appears in Tuesday's Washington Post. Below is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity:
Question: Gen. Ham, why do you think you were chosen for this assignment?
Ham: I don't know. I really don't. The only thing that makes sense to me is I think that the significance of the matter said you ought to have a four-star [general]. The Army is the largest service, the largest deployed force, maybe it makes sense to have an Army guy do that. As you start looking around, the 11, maybe there were 12 at the time, Army four-stars and you kind of say, who can do this? The number dwindles pretty rapidly.
Having served as the director for operations, I had served with [Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman] Adm. [Mike] Mullen and had a certainly not a close association with the secretary of defense, but I would see him at least once a week on operational matters. So there was perhaps, at least I was not an unknown.
Johnson: I have discovered over the last nine months that Carter Ham is a very thoughtful human being with a keen sense of and good instinct for other human beings. And he's had 37 years in the United States Army and he's gone from being a private to a four-star general. And there aren't many people in the United States Army who've done that.
Ham: I think Mr. Johnson said that because my daughter gave him barbeque and sweet potato pie when we visited Georgia (laughter).
When it comes to you and your service, did either of you know of colleagues who are gay or lesbian?
Ham: I do not.
Johnson: I've never been in the military, no.
Gen. Ham, how did you divide your time since you were also running Army operations in Europe?
Ham: I had the crew go back and look. Since March, really since February when we knew this was coming, it's just a shade under half the time on this side of the ocean. Somewhere, I thought it was 20-plus, it looks like it's now about 30 trips back and forth. A pretty significant investment of time and certainly would not have been possible without a great team back in Europe.
Johnson: Between the two of us, we probably came face-to-face with over 10,000 service members.
And that's what I want to get into the next: How this study was conducted. Who really took the lead? Was this a marriage of equals or times when it was perhaps 60-40?
Ham: Particularly in the Spring and Summer, when we were heavily engaged with meeting the force, you can't do that by [teleconferencing], you have to go to the place. We did a lot of that ourselves.
Johnson: We did a lot of travel.
Ham: Perhaps it's an overly simplistic view, but for matters that dealt largely with the Office of the Secretary of Defense and his staff, and personally with the secretary of defense, Mr. Johnson, again, because he was here most of the time, would take lead. If it was predominantly a military matter with the chairman and the services, I'd kind of take the lead for that particular action. We tried, as much as we could, to say it's not that Mr. Johnson's responsible for this set of issues and Ham's responsible for this set of issues, it was very much a real co-chair issue.
Johnson: When it comes to this assignment, I think I know what I don't know, not having spent a day in the military. A lot of what I think I brought to this assignment were the lawyering skills of assembling the evidence, marshaling the evidence for the assessment. This was by no means a piece of advocacy. Marshaling it, putting it together for the report, but I really looked to Gen. Ham as the barometer. I looked to him for his instincts, for how he was assessing what we were seeing and hearing. There were various points along the way when I would ask him, what are you thinking? What is your reaction to what we just heard? I would rely upon his sense for that and not go off on my own in any large way.
Ham: Clearly Mr. Johnson brings not only the legal background, because there are many aspects of this, I mean, this is a law. So understanding that and his depth of understanding that and how it effects other laws in the government and across the country was important to have. The other very useful perspective that Mr. Johnson brought is not having served in the military, recognizing that yes, our report is addressed to one man, the secretary of defense, but it's going to be read and used -- we hope -- by a wide variety of people, many of whom are not in the military. If I had done this by myself, I would have written this report in a very military style. No more than 30 or 40 acronyms per page.
Johnson: You will see almost no acronyms.
Ham: That I think also was a useful partnership.
Question: Absolutely. On behalf of civilians everywhere, thanks for leaving out the acronyms. I know you've taken into account the surveys taken over the summer, the focus groups with veterans and same-sex partners, but talk to me about the 50 trips you took to military installations. Here in the U.S. or all over the world?
Johnson: Mostly here in the States.
Ham: But Europe, the Pacific, Hawaii, Japan.
Johnson: But Gen. Ham avoided his own [area of responsibility].
Ham: Yeah, I did not do the Europe trip, because obviously as a commander there it gets confusing for folks.
Question: What were these meetings like? You and a few hundred troops in the room together?
Johnson: Typically between 100 and 300 each. Typically we did them together.
Ham: We'd go to a base theater some place. We'd have this group of folks there that would kind of coordinate with base leadership, but we left it up to the base leadership to determine who came and how they distributed information. Typically you'd have a mix of ranks, a number of different units. Most places there was always a predominant service. Typically two or more services represented and they would often speak up as well.
We'd start these sessions by saying a little bit about who we were and what we were doing and why we were there. Just simply say that, the president had called upon Congress to repeal the law, the secretary formed this group, and we'd talk to them about what the task was.
We'd ask a couple of questions to kind of generate conversation, but mostly it was to listen. What goes on in the troops' minds. What were their concerns about repeal? We tried to shape the conversation that way to say, OK, if the law is repealed, what would be the impacts of that? That's where we came up with a number of the subject areas that were addressed in the survey. These weren't matters we thought of, the troops came up with them, and said, these are important to us, you need to think about this. So we put questions in the survey to address this issue.
Johnson: A lot of our recommendations are shaped around the thoughts that service members raised.
Ham: The survey, at least in my mind, always had primacy, because that was specifically designed to yield the statistically significant, analytically rigorous data. As far as we could tell, that had never been done before. Lots of other surveys, but not done with the rigor that was necessarily required to be objective. It didn't represent the force as a whole. A lot of work went into that.
Johnson: The survey is not a referendum. It's not, 'Should we do this?' We don't make military policy, important decisions about the military through a referendum. The survey was a very focused series of questions to assess the impact of repealing this law on unit cohesion, recruitment, retention, readiness, effectiveness, family readiness. There are certain very focused ways that we went about developing those questions with Westat, the firm we hired.
But, through the information exchange forums and the survey, we got very candid, frank views expressed. The good news is we heard a lot across the spectrum, but it was civil, it was professional, it was cordial. To be frank, I was a little nervous about going out...
Ham: A little nervous is an understatement (laughter).
Johnson: ...about going out in these large meetings of 100 to 300 service members to talk about "don't ask, don't tell," a sensitive, emotional topic.
Ham: We're having these discussions in February and March. We had just met and I'm like, 'We need to do this. This is how we can do this.' But think about what was happening in that time: Health-care town hall meetings. So that's what he's got in his mind, is that we're going to go out there and we're going to get attacked from service members and their families on this issue. I'm like, 'Trust me, that's not how service members act. We're going to hear some very strongly opinionated things, but they will always be respectful, not only to us but to each other.' But there was a degree of skepticism.
In those conversations, were what they said reflected later in the survey results?
Johnson: The conversations were not of quantitative value and they were not intended to be representational of the force, because that's just not how you do it. The people who choose to voice their questions and concerns in a large group gathering like that are not necessarily going to be representative of the whole force. That's what the survey was for. These large groups sessions, we called them IEFs [information exchange forums]s, we did them to hear what were the 10, 15 top things on service members' minds. And we heard a consistent eight to 10 things at these sessions.
Why did you send the survey to 400,000 troops? Why not 4,000? Why not 40,000?
Ham: When we started this process and developed the strategy for the survey, we said we have to be able to segregate and report them by service, by component, by rank, age, sex, marital status, deployed status, war-fighting specialties, career fields, those kinds of things across the spectrum. It was many more piles of reportable categories than a typical survey.
My recollection is that the companies came back and said, in order to do that, you need about 70,000 surveys to go out. And with a normal response rate, that would give you 20-some thousand responses, and that would be sufficient to be statistically significant in all the categories that you want.
Secretary [Robert M.] Gates had told us that he wanted this to be a little broader, so we decided to up it to 200,000. Cost being somewhat a factor, time of analysis being another factor. We knew we didn't need to do that many, but you could also buy down the margin of error with more.
So we briefed the secretary of defense and the chiefs. The chiefs asked, 'Can we do everybody?' The answer is yes, the cost is pretty high, but more important than the dollar cost was the time to administer and the time to analyze. Based on that, the secretary said, double it, go to 400,000.
Johnson: We haven't been able to confirm this, but I believe it is the largest non-census survey of the U.S. military. It is statistically significant across every component of the force.
The nature of the questions asked: The fact that you asked questions would you be uncomfortable showering in the same location as openly gay colleagues. There was a lot of offense taken. Why ask it?
Ham: Because it came up, probably, in every session we had with the force. The first issue raised was privacy. So we said, OK, we're hearing this over and over again. It was really, really on the minds of the troops. So we said, how can we not ask questions? There's no polite way to ask it, so we asked. I go it that people took offense, but to me, we would not have been doing our duty if we knew this was a hot topic with the troops and we didn't try to get analytically sound information about that matter.
Is there any group of people you didn't hear enough from over the course of this study?
Ham: The group I would pick is gays and lesbians who are serving today. It's the toughest issue to get to. We talked a lot about this at the outset, of how do you get to that group without triggering the law.
Johnson: We were able to devise a mechanism through the surveys. We got a lot of anonymous input. Plus, Gen. Ham and I sat down with separated service members and we sat down with the significant others of currently serving service members.
Ham: If we could have found a way to sit down and talk and to meet with serving gays and lesbians without triggering the law, it would have been good to be able to do that.
Did you want to directly ask the question, 'Do you support or oppose 'don't ask, don't tell?''
Johnson: That was not our mandate. You just don't make military policy that way.
I know that, but you know that one of the lead criticisms on both sides this week will be that you didn't ask the question.
Johnson: No, but we were tasked to assess the impact of repeal on the big six, as it were. Through the survey and our numerous other engagements we've done that.
Your bosses are out there very publicly, repeatedly saying I want this to go away. In spite of that, how are you able to put together such a balanced report?
Ham: Well, the troops were not shy about voicing their opinions. We talked about what the president said, people were cognizant of where the secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stood on this. But we heard across the spectrum and that was very, very good. For us, personally, I'll just speak about myself personally, I'm not just a co-chair, I'm a commander. So if this thing changes, I've got to do this. I can't put my signature on something that's contrary to what I think. If I didn't believe what was in that report, I wouldn't have signed it.
Johnson: The secretary said he supported repeal, the chairman said he supported repeal in February, but they both said they realized the need to do a comprehensive study. And I know from talking to him that the secretary believes strongly that if we do this, we have to do this right. He wanted to engage the force on this issue. I think we both believed and felt that our obligation was to not simply figure out the how, but to also assess whether we can.
Neither one of us felt an obligation to our leadership to have this come out a certain way or see if you could make it work. We both feel very strongly an obligation to report our honest and candid assessments here.
Ham: One of the things that dawned on me is that there are a couple of million youngsters out there that are counting on Mr. Johnson and me to get this right. The report is our report, but it's reflecting the views of what we heard in this systematic engagement of the force. We can't do a disservice to them.
Johnson: Now that we've given the force an opportunity to express themselves, they, I'm sure are looking for us to accurately reflect what we heard, to report it to the secretary, the president, the Congress and the public.
How did you instruct the 66 people on your team to behave? Especially when meeting with stakeholders?
Johnson: We made it very clear that people were to check their personal views at the door. We both recognized that we couldn't have a working environment where people were lined up on what side of the issue or the other.
Ham: There was lots and lots and debate about this, but not opinions. To this day, Mr. Johnson has never asked me and I have never asked him what are your personal views about "don't ask, don't tell." Because it's not relevant to our work.
Johnson: Everyone has an opinion on this. ... We knew that this group would work best if we told everybody, check your personal views at the door. Therefore, no one felt that they were being perceived as being in one camp or another.
What was the biggest surprise for you as you did this?
Ham: I really expected to see a very stark, generational difference. There's some of that, but it's not black and white like I thought. My sense is, all the old farts like me are going to be very much opposed to change and the youngsters would say, get over it, it's not a big deal. It's not so much a generational issue.
The second surprise to me, is I thought we'd hear from the reserve components, who in their civilian jobs, work routinely with gays and lesbians. That there would be a stark difference between active and reserve components. I didn't see that materialize.
Johnson: I'm not sure I can answer that without getting into our assessments.
You're now sitting on a wealth of demographic information from the surveys taken. What should the military do with that information in the future?
Johnson: Hopefully the model we used will be a model for assessing the impact of other personnel decisions in the future. There are also, in the survey responses, some general answers about how service members are viewing their leadership in general.
Ham: The baseline questions to the surveys I think have some great utility far beyond "don't ask, don't tell." They get into the business of satisfaction with your quality of life, your unit's preparedness, your leaders, propensity to reenlist and to recommend a family member or close friend to enlist. The baseline questions of the surveys can be used by the services and by the OSD staff for a wide variety of purposes.
Johnson: I don't consider travel as part of my job. As the lawyer for the Department of Defense, my sense is it's my job to stay here, deal with the daily crises that come up. Most general counsels don't get the opportunity to get out and about like I did. This was a huge learning experience for me, in terms of exposure to the force, to the different services, to the different cultures of the different services. I was very impressed with the level of civility and professionalism with which we were able to have this discussion.
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