WASHINGTON (CN) - The two top military officials told Senators Tuesday that they are seeking to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, a move that would allow gays to openly serve for the first time. "I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens," Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Admiral Mike Mullen said.
"It is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do," Mullen said in his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates likewise said that he fully supports the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," which allows gays to serve in the military so long as they keep their sexuality a secret.
The rule was introduced as a compromise under the Clinton administration to replace a measure baring gays from military service. It has led to the removal of 13,000 members - including dozens of valued Arabic and Farsi translators - during the 16 years it has been in place.
Congress would have to authorize a repealing of the rule, but public sentiment appears to have changed on the issue. When "don't ask, don't tell" was first imposed, the majority of Americans were against openly gay members serving in the military. The latest Gallup pole now shows that 69 percent of Americans are in favor of allowing openly gay personnel to serve.
Other studies show that the majority of service members believe they are already serving alongside gays. Of the roughly 1.4 million active-duty military personnel, 66,000 gays are estimated to be serving.
Michigan Chair Carl Levin and Arizona Ranking Member John McCain butted heads during the hearing. Levin appeared adamant. Repealing the "discriminatory policy," he said, "would improve our military's capability and reflect our commitment to equal opportunity."
McCain argued against repealing what he called a successful policy, noting especially that now, when the nation is fighting two wars, is a bad time for such a dramatic change. McCain held up a letter calling for the preservation of "don't ask, don't tell," which he said has the signatures of 1000 former officers.
Despite his calls to expulse openly gay service members, McCain said he respects those serving in the military.
His wife, Cindy McCain, recently joined the NOH8 ad campaign, which advocates gay marriage. McCain's daughter, Meghan McCain, has already been a longtime supporter of gay marriage.
Obama, who called for the repeal of the program during his campaign, reportedly said that he had avoided addressing "don't ask, don't tell" during his first year because he didn't want distractions from the health care debate, but he has said he would tackle the rule in 2010.
Obama last week renewed his call for the program's repeal in his State of the Union address.
While both Gates and Mullen called for the program's removal, they said they would need time to plan how to implement a new policy.
Gates has appointed a team to review a repeal of the policy, and its effects on benefits, base housing, misconduct, unit cohesion, and recruitment, with an analysis expected to take up to a year.
In the meantime, Gates said he has wiggle room to change how the law is implemented and hinted at allowing gays to stay in the military if they are outed by a third party.
Mullen said he believes military personnel would be able to accommodate openly gay comrades. "I never underestimate their ability to adapt," he said, but also called into question whether now is an appropriate time for the change.
Mullen added, however, that NATO allies - many of which allow gays to openly serve - have reported that there was no impact in the military performance after making similar changes.