Military Overreacted to Officer's Computer Use

On Friday, Commodore Eric Lerhe, commander of the Canadian navy's West Coast warship fleet, was temporarily relieved of duty for doing what most employees do every day: using his work computer for something other than work.

Specifically, Lerhe confessed to surfing "Penthouse-like" Websites on his department of national defence (DND)-supplied laptop computer while he was off-duty.

Lerhe knew it was in violation of the DND's stringent rules about computer use and that he would face disciplinary action. But he decided to come clean after he was told that one of his sailors was about to face a disciplinary proceeding for misusing a DND computer. Since there was a strong possibility that Lerhe would be a judge at the summary trial, the commodore felt he would be in conflict. So he told his boss, Vice-Admiral Ron Buck, about his own after-hours Net surfing and was promptly suspended.

When the story broke across the country on Tuesday, the news made the front section, if not the front page, of almost every paper in Canada. The reaction to Lerhe's suspension was swift and nearly unanimous. "This is another example of the department of national defence taking political correctness to the point of madness," sputtered James Allan, a former army colonel.

Retired major Dee Brasseur and former lieutenant-colonel Sheila Robinson, two military feminist activists, have both commended Lerhe for the courage of his confession.

And in an op-ed piece yesterday, retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie treated Globe and Mail readers to the revelation that he, himself, read a lot of Playboy and Penthouse magazines when he was overseas and generously shared them with many female soldiers (a surprising, yet delightful example of straight-boy, gay-girl solidarity in the military).

I'll add my voice to the chorus of those who think the navy overreacted. As infractions go, Lerhe's was a minor one. He admittedly broke the rules, but he has a clean record, demonstrated integrity in coming forward and, although it shouldn't matter, a pretty tame and common taste in pornography.

The trouble for Lerhe is that the issue of his computer misuse has been mixed up with the issue of pornography.

If Lerhe looked at porn on his own computer, or bought a Penthouse magazine to look at during his off-hours on base, he wouldn't be in this mess. And it's also fair to say that, for all the military's rules about only using work computers for official business, Lerhe probably wouldn't have been suspended if he had confessed to using his DND laptop to check out stamp-collecting Websites or to type up grocery lists.

Still, I'm irked by some of the defenders of Lerhe, many, like MacKenzie, who are quick to blame feminists, or like, Allan, those mysterious forces of "political correctness" for Lerhe's fate.

It's a stab in the dark, but I'm going to guess that most, if not all, top- ranking military officials in Canada are straight white men over 50 - hardly the face of political correctness. I'm also going to bet that these guys are not regulars at pro-choice rallies, women's centre collective meetings, or performances of "The Vagina Monologues" and aren't in any way under the sway of a cabal of radical feminists.

These straight white guys who run the Canadian military have good reason to be vigilant.

Since the Somalia affair, the military can hardly count on the public's trust and faith. Nor can it count on hospitable conditions for women on military bases or ships. So when a high-ranking commander comes forward and not only admits that he broke a well-publicized rule, but that he broke it to look at porn, it makes sense that the military take the matter seriously.

History gives it good reason to ensure that if employees have a porn-viewing habit, they restrict it to their off-hours and to their home computers.

In the past several years, the DND has had to contend with several high-profile cases involving staff misusing government computers. In 1997, a $100,000 computer system was installed to track employee Internet usage after three defence-department employees were found accessing and possessing child pornography; and in 1999, a senior officer in the reserves was charged with downloading child porn and abusing his government credit card. However strongly one feels about free expression, however laissez-faire one is about one's own occasional illicit use of a work computer, few Canadians would be comfortable with taxpayer-purchased computers being used by government employees to download child porn.

Commodore Eric Lerhe isn't a pervert or a bad guy, just someone who exercised some bad judgment and in the process got caught in the over-zealous crossfire of the military's self-monitoring. And if he is, as is hoped, restored to his command, I'd offer one piece of advice: Buy your own laptop.

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