Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen are testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee right now, and shortly, that hearing will shift from a discussion of the Quadrennial Defense Review and the DoD budget to a review of the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. The top-line news from this hearing, according to reports, is that the military will scale back the policy, and refuse to investigate service members outed by a third party. That’s the good news; the bad news is that the military still wants to drag out a full repeal.

President Obama’s top defense officials will tell the Senate on Tuesday that the military will no longer aggressively pursue disciplinary action against gay service members whose orientation is revealed against their will by third parties, sources say.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen also are expected to announce the creation of a group to assess how to carry out a full repeal of the decades-old “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which requires gay soldiers to keep their sexual orientation secret.

But Gates and Mullen are also expected to tell senators that it could take years to integrate gay men and lesbians fully into the military, defense officials said. Two appointees will be named to oversee a group that will draw up plans for integrating the armed forces, according to sources familiar with the Pentagon’s deliberations on the subject. The planning effort is expected to take up to a year.

Among the issues to be addressed by the group: whether gay soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines will face any restrictions on exhibiting their sexual orientation on the job; whether the Pentagon will be obligated to provide for their domestic partners; and whether straight military personnel could be compelled to share quarters with gays.

There’s clearly an attempt to slow-walk the policy coming from the military. While it’s encouraging that about 30% less service members were discharged for being gay in 2009, and that those outed against their wishes will not be investigated, the military is reluctant to being in any way proactive about this, and that drives what Congress will do. A spokesman for Carl Levin is quoted in the article as saying that “there is no firm plan” to put repeal of DADT into the defense authorization bill, the most efficient pathway for passage, and the way the original DADT policy was enacted.

The review to be described by Gates and Mullen today could take as long as a year, and the issues they want to cover, including benefits and even marriage, are designed to drag this out as long as possible. It’s time for leadership.

They’re running circles around the White House. Or worse, the White House is complicit. Either way, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell isn’t going to happen under Barack Obama’s watch unless we force him keep his promise. The real question is whether the Human Rights Campaign will help us, or continue to provide cover for a president who seems increasingly afraid to lead.

Or, a President satisfied with an incremental pace of change far below what his supporters expect.

UPDATE: In a statement on today’s hearing, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who has led the fight for repeal in the Senate, explains what this is all about, and it’s not making the military feel gradually comfortable:

These steps towards equality are our duty. I strongly believe that equality is an inalienable American right – and should not be ascribed based on gender or race, religion or sexual orientation or gender identity. America must lead by example when it comes to equality and justice. Freedom from discrimination is a basic right that all Americans should enjoy. Lifting the ban on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is not only necessary for realizing equality, but it’s necessary for ensuring that our armed forces remain the best in the world.

David Dayen

David Dayen