Admiral Michael Mullen, President Bush’s nominee to succeed General Peter Pace as Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, was questioned about the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on lesbian, gay and bisexual personnel during a Senate hearing on Tuesday.

He called for a national debate about the current law, which allows gay, bisexual and lesbian people to serve in the US military as long as they do not disclose their sexuality.

Admiral Mullen, currently Chief of Naval Operations, was asked his view of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” by Republican Senator Susan Collins.

“I really think it is for the American people to come forward, really through this body, to both debate that policy and make changes, if that’s appropriate,” he said.

“I’d love to have Congress make its own decisions.”

The current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Marine General Peter Pace, said in a March interview with the Chicago Tribune:

“I believe homosexual acts between two individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts.”

He went on to reiterate his support for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” by saying that “I do not believe the United States is well served by a policy that says it is OK to be immoral in any way.”

His remarks caused outrage from politicians, former service personnel and gay rights activists.

Pace later acknowledged that he should not have given his personal opinion in the interview, but stopped short of issuing any apology.

In June CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr reported that General Pace’s departure later this year from his role as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs may be linked to his comments.

Many leading Democrats support a total removal of the ban on LGB people serving in the US army, navy, air force and coast guard, among them Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Pressure group the Servicemembers Legal Defence Network welcomed the comments of Admiral Mullen as a change of pace among the US military leadership.

Sharra E. Greer, director of law and policy for SLDN, said:

“As Senator Collins rightly pointed out, there is growing concern among the national security establishment that the loss of talented gay troops is having a detrimental impact on our armed forces.

“Admiral Mullen should be applauded for his willingness to take part in a national conversation about that issue, and for his open-minded approach to working with Congress as they consider the future of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’”

A recent poll of military personnel found that 73% of those surveyed were comfortable around gays, and CNN found last month that 79% of the American public support repeal.

“More and more military leaders are willing to take a second look at this counter-productive law, and we are hopeful that Admiral Mullen is among them,” said Ms Greer.

If confirmed, Admiral Mullen will take over as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on 1st October.