A Republican politician who was in charge of the US Armed Forces for four years has backed calls by a retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs to re-open the debate over the controversial “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy.

William Cohen served as Defence Secretary from 1997 – 2001 under Democrat President Bill Clinton.

In an interview last night on CNN, Cohen described the current policy as discriminatory and not reflective of current American public opinion.

“It’s time to start thinking about it and starting to discuss it,” he told presenter Wolf Blitzen.

“I think what we’re hearing from within the military is what we’re hearing from within society, that we’re becoming a much more open, tolerant society for diverse opinions and orientation,” he added.

Writing in The New York Times yesterday, Gen Shalikashvili said he had changed his mind about gays in the military after speaking to gay and lesbian troops.

Current US military policy, referred to as “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” dates from 1993, when a compromise was reached between President Clinton’s desire to allow gays in the military and Congressional resistance to any such policy.

It prohibits gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military, but allows those who remain in the closet to do so.

Reacting to this latest call for a re-examination of the issue C. Dixon Osburn, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said, “The dominos propping up ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ are falling, and they are falling quickly.

“It is clear that prominent military leaders question the wisdom of maintaining the ban.

“As three service members continue to lose their jobs every day, our armed forces are experiencing a significant talent drain. Those who know our military best now realise that the ban is not only unjust, but also unproductive.”