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Commentary | COLUMN LEFT/ ROBERT SCHEER

The Navy Makes War on Its Own

A witch hunt against a veteran submariner violated military rules and federal privacy laws.

January 20, 1998|ROBERT SCHEER

When President Clinton inaugurated the "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue" policy regarding gays in the military, he claimed it would "provide a decent regard to the legitimate privacy and associational rights of all service members." If he is serious, the president must intervene to save the career of Senior Chief Petty Officer Timothy R. McVeigh (no relation to the Oklahoma bomber), who until recently was the highest-ranking enlisted man on the nuclear submarine Chicago.

The witch hunt conducted against this highly decorated 17-year Navy veteran with an exemplary record violates the military's own guidelines as well as the federal law governing Internet privacy. The case against McVeigh is based on the charge that he listed "gay" as his marital status in his personal America Online profile. He identified himself on it simply as "Tim" from "Honolulu, Hawaii." Not having mentioned his surname or Navy connection, it is obvious that McVeigh did not "tell" anyone in the military that he is gay.

Chatting online under a pseudonym, which is common practice, is clearly a private activity. McVeigh got into trouble when he used his AOL account to send an e-mail to the wife of a fellow crewman regarding a Christmas toy drive for the crew's children. She checked his profile and tipped off Navy investigators who confirmed McVeigh's identity by tricking an AOL staff member into providing his full name, thus betraying his right to privacy.

The Electronics Communications Privacy Act of 1986 forbids online providers from revealing information about their customers without a court order or the customer's permission. AOL claims to have procedures to prevent such invasion of privacy. According to the testimony of the Navy investigator who called AOL, he didn't mention that he worked for the government or claim that he was performing an official duty. He simply said he had received a third-party fax from "Tim," and an AOL employee revealed the identity of McVeigh. Which might make the 10 million AOL subscribers a bit nervous as they post their most intimate thoughts on the network's chat rooms.

AOL has some serious explaining to do as to why any of us subscribers should trust it. But the real culprits here are the Navy investigators who went to such lengths to destroy the honor of a seaman who never had given a moment of legitimate cause for concern that he violated any military regulations. In all of his years of service, no one has ever suggested that McVeigh ever committed or solicited a homosexual act, or in any other way indicated that he might be gay. Described as "an outstanding role model" and the "embodiment of Navy core values" in his last performance appraisal, McVeigh has received four major service decorations.

But the U.S. Navy has a long history of extreme homophobia, which is a continuing insult to the large number of gays who have served so honorably. Forty years ago there was Lt. Thomas Dooley, a Navy doctor who became world famous for saving the lives of tens of thousands of Catholic war refugees from North Vietnam. Honored by the president, the pope and Time magazine for his heroic service, Dooley was quietly forced to resign from the Navy after its investigators learned that this celebrated patriot, referred to throughout the world as Dr. America and the American Albert Schweitzer, was homosexual. Like McVeigh, Dooley had always performed his duties honorably. In order to "get" Dooley, the Navy snoops broke the law on entrapment and set him up.

Once again, in the McVeigh case, it is the homophobes who are the real threat to the integrity of the Navy. Clearly they are the likely security risks since they have demonstrated so little respect for the law.

The argument against gays in the military comes down to a question of trust: Are gays less likely than heterosexuals to perform their duties honorably? The answer is no, as the McVeigh case once again illustrates. What ugly irony there is in the example of the other Tim McVeigh, who also served in the military, where his instability was on full display. But despite overt racist and paranoid behavior, he never was ordered to leave. Is it because this future mass murderer had the saving grace of being heterosexual?

It is time to admit the obvious: Sexual orientation is not a logical basis for predicting military performance. Instead of fabricating evidence to frame dedicated members of the military who, irrespective of their sexual orientation, serve their country with honor, the Pentagon should be educating its officers in the lessons of tolerance. It is not the business of the military in a free society to make war on its own people.

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Robert Scheer is a Times contributing editor. E-mail: rscheer@aol.com

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