The number of Arabic linguists discharged from the military for violating its "don't ask, don't tell" policy was nearly three times as high as previously reported, according to records obtained by an advocacy group. Between 1998 and 2004, the military discharged 20 Arabic and six Farsi speakers, according to Department of Defense data obtained by the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military under a Freedom of Information Act request.
The military previously confirmed that seven translators who specialized in Arabic had been discharged because they were gay. The updated numbers were first reported by The New Republic magazine.
Aaron Belkin, the center's director, said he wants the public to see the real costs of "don't ask, don't tell." "We had a language problem after 9/11, and we still have a language problem," Belkin said Wednesday.
The military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy allows gays and lesbians to serve in the military as long as they keep their sexual orientation private and do not engage in homosexual acts. But Belkin and other advocates say such a policy endangers national security at a time when U.S. intelligence agencies and the military say they don't have enough Arabic translators.
"The military is placing homophobia well ahead of national security," said Steve Ralls, spokesman for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a nonprofit group that advocates for the rights of gay military members. "It's rather appalling that in the weeks leading up to 9/11, messages were coming in, waiting to be translated...and at the same time they were firing people who could've done that job."
But others, like Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness, a conservative advocacy group that opposes gays serving in the military, said the discharged linguists never should have been accepted at the elite Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., in the first place. "Resources, unfortunately, were used to train young people who were not eligible to be in the military," she said. "We need to recruit people who are eligible to serve."
In the fiscal year ending October 31, 2004, 543 Arabic linguists and 166 Farsi linguists graduated from their 63-week courses, according to a Defense Language Institute spokesman. That was up from 377 and 139, respectively, in the previous year, reflecting the military's increased need for translators in Iraq.
Experts have identified the shortage of Arabic linguists as contributing to the government's failure to predict the September 11, 2001, attacks. The independent 9/11 commission made similar conclusions. The government "lacked sufficient translators proficient in Arabic and other key languages" to adequately prepare itself against future strikes, the report said.
"It used to be, this was seen as a gay rights issue, but now it's clearly a national security issue," said Nathaniel Frank, a senior research fellow at the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Ian Finkenbinder, a U.S. Army Arabic linguist who graduated from the Defense Language Institute in 2002, was discharged from the military last month after announcing to his superiors that he's gay. Finkenbinder, who said his close friends in the Army already knew he was gay, served eight months in Iraq and was about to return for a second tour when he made the revelation official.
"I looked at myself and said, 'Are you willing to go to war with an institution that won't recognize that you have the right to live as you want to?"' said Finkenbinder, 22, who now lives in Baltimore. "It just got to be tiresome to deal with that--to constantly have such a significant part of your
life under scrutiny."
Finkenbinder said his commander was upset about letting him go because his Arabic proficiency was at the highest level possible for a nonnative speaker. SLDN last month sued the government on behalf of 12 gay former military members seeking reinstatement. They're seeking to overturn "don't ask, don't tell," alleging it violates their constitutional rights.