TORONTO — One of Canada’s top naval officers is facing a court-martial for using a government computer to surf “Penthouse-like” sex sites on the Internet.
Commodore Eri Lerhe, a 34-year, twice-decorated veteran of the Canadian armed forces and one of the third-highest ranking officers in the navy, was suspended from his post as commander of Canada’s Pacific Fleet after he confessed his transgression rather than sit in judgment of a junior officer charged with a similar offense.
Though that junior officer has since been acquitted, Commodore Lerhe could face dismissal from the military with disgrace for admitting he used a navy computer albeit on his own time and with his personal Internet account to surf sexually oriented Web sites.
“The problem is that Canada’s new military regulations take away from the commanding officer the power to exercise discretion,” said David Bright, a Halifax, Nova Scotia-based lawyer specializing in military courts-martial.
Under rules established after a military scandal over the brutal actions by some Canadian soldiers in Somalia and a subsequent cover-up, Vice Admiral Ron Buck had no choice but to call in the National Investigations Service after Commodore Lerhe admitted to a breach of the navy’s code of “good order and discipline,” Mr. Bright said.
Once the NIS, Canada’s military police force, decided to lay charges, there was no option other than to proceed to a court-martial, added Maj. Bruce MacGregor of the Judge Advocate General’s Office.
The case has become a cause celebre among supporters and opponents of the feminist movement in Canada.
Brian MacDonald, a retired colonel, described the heavy-handed response to Commodore Lerhre’s actions as “idiocy,” given the amount of money and time the military has invested in training him.
But Geraldine Glattstein, executive director of Women Against Violence Against Women, said the military’s actions were justified because “it’s dangerous for women to be supervised by someone who spends his spare time looking at those kinds of Web sites.”
If Commodore Lerhe, 52, were looking at Web sites about crocheting or golf, it wouldn’t have the same impact as spending his free time looking at women as “sex objects,” she said.
Margaret Wente, a columnist for Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper, wrote that the Canadian military, in its zeal to be responsive to women, is enforcing “the worldview of the most extreme faction of feminists,” which considers pornography “not a minor vice, but a major social evil.”
Most women, she added, “including most women in uniform, think such beliefs are ridiculous. But they have already cost other officers their careers.”
Navy regulations prohibit the use of Defense Department equipment to surf the Web for any non-work reason, whether “you’re visiting a porn site or a gardening group,” Mr. Bright explained.
“It sounds worse if it’s a porn site, but women tell me that’s because men aren’t as high on the evolutionary chain, and that’s why we do it.”
A survey cited in the Journal of the American Psychological Association may confirm that. The 1999 study found that 86 percent of American men were likely to click on sex sites, nearly 13 percent of them while at work.
Art Hanger, a member of the opposition Canadian Alliance Party, described the charges against Commodore Lerhe as “political correctness in the extreme.”
“I’m not condoning digging into pornography sites, but it’s ridiculous the way social engineers have impacted on the military,” he said.
Commodore Lerhe, Mr. Hanger added, “displayed forthright attitudes” by confessing his own violation of the rules, rather than hypocritically sitting in judgment on a junior officer, and the military brass “should have handled this behind closed doors.”
NIS spokesman Maj. John Pumphrey said Commodore Lerhe ultimately could face a court-martial because of his rank.
While lower-ranked personnel likely would receive internal discipline from commanding officers, the NIS felt obliged to lay the charge “because we have charged others with similar offenses” and they didn’t want to show favoritism to a senior officer.
Commodore Lerhe, he added, “is not the first person charged in like circumstances and won’t be the last. So why shouldn’t we charge him?”
The public outcry over the charges, however, may have worked in Commodore Lerhe’s favor. Last week, Defense Minister Art Eggleton asked military lawyers to review the policy that resulted in Commodore Lerhe’s suspension.
Under Canadian military rules, if Commodore Lerhe is tried and convicted, he faces sanctions ranging from a reprimand to dismissal with disgrace.