Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the first Congressional hearing on the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy in 17 years that “my personal belief is that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do.” However, he cautioned that a year-long process in studying the effects of repealing the policy would be necessary.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, saying that he fully supported the President’s decision to repeal the policy, and that “the question is not whether the military prepares to make this change, but how we prepare for it,” named two Pentagon officials to head the study, which would focus on a variety of issues. Jeh Johnson, the legal counsel for the Defense Department, and Gen. Carter Hamm, the commander of US Army Europe, would lead that process.

Mullen’s statement, which Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) said would be “long remembered for its courage,” stands in sharp contrast to the response of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the beginning of the Clinton Administration, the last time this policy was reviewed. Saying that he “understands perfectly the President’s desire to see the law repealed,” he stated his personal belief that the current policy “forces young men and women to lie about who they are.” In the end, Mullen said, “It comes down to integrity.”

Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), the Chairman of the Senate Armed Sevices committee, said in his opening statement that we should “repeal this discriminatory policy,” and that ending it would contribute to the military’s effectiveness. By contrast, ranking member Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) noted a list of 1,000 former flag officers and generals who do not support repeal. “Numerous military leaders tell me Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is working, and I agree.” McCain expressed disappointment with Secretary Gates’ statement that the military must prepare for repeal, saying that it is Congress’ function.

Gates announced his one-year review, with its findings in the form of an implementation plan to be submitted by the end of 2010. The working group would 1) reach out to the force for their views and concerns, 2) look at changes to DoD regulations and policies (such as benefits, housing, fraternization, etc.), 3) look at military effectiveness (unit cohesion, retention). He will also ask the RAND Corporation to update their study of the impact on gays in the military. Responding to why this would take a year, Gates said, “When you take into account the overriding imperative to get this right, it is clear we must proceed in a manner that allows for a thorough examination of all issues.”

Gates also announced that, within 45 days, he would recommend changes, within existing law, “to enforce policy in a more fair manner.” He believes that there is a “degree of latitude” within existing law, similar to what was widely reported today, to reduce instances where a service member is outed by a third party with the intent to harm his or her career. He cautioned that “It’s a little more complicated than Wapo conveyed,” however, and he would not state support (or opposition) to a moratorium on discharges of gay and lesbian service members during the year-long assessment. While Gates believed current law would not permit that, Levin said that changes to the law could be made to accommodate a moratorium.

Mullen, while certainly favoring a go-slow approach to gather more information about the impact (“We would all like a better handle on these types of concerns”), said he would obey whatever the legislative and executive branch decided on the matter. However, his statement was undeniably powerful and had a moral force. Saying that “I have served with homosexuals since 1968,” Mullen said that the integrity of the military as an institution was dissonant with discriminatory policies. “Putting individuals in a position where they wonder, “is today going to be the day,” and devaluing them in that regard, just is inconsistent with us as an institution,” Mullen said.

UPDATE: Susan Collins’ questioning sure makes it seem like she would support a repeal. She asked about NATO allies who allow gays and lesbians to serve openly, and Admiral Mullen replied that “they tell me it has had no effect on their readiness or effectiveness.” There is at least one Republican vote for repeal.

UPDATE II: Sen. Lieberman: “I opposed DADT in 1993, and I oppose it today, so I support repeal.”

UPDATE III: Sen. Levin just floated the idea of placing repeal in the defense authorization bill to make passage easier. It would require an amendment to get it out. So far I’ve heard no Democrat opposed to repeal, at least on this panel. So that would seem to be the way to go.

UPDATE IV: Appearing with Andrea Mitchell, Joe Biden predicted that DADT would be repealed by the end of the year. I don’t know how that squares with the timeline Gates proposed of a one-year study, but the Mullen announcement definitely offers momentum.

UPDATE V: Rep. Joe Sestak, running for Senate in Pennsylvania, wants the President to sign a “stop-loss” order to end the discharges immediately, instead of waiting a year for a military study.

“Today’s announcement that the Pentagon will begin a year-long study to prepare for repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ indicates a step in the right direction, but it is inadequate,” said Joe. “It’s not time to study ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ it’s time to end it, and we should do so immediately. That said, if unfortunately if we are to study the process, our military and troops cannot be left in limbo. President Obama should sign an executive order — relying on the same ‘stop-loss’ authority used to extend tours of duty — to halt dismissals under this policy. In a time of war, we cannot lose any more troops that we depend on to keep our country safe.