Net snared US sailor in `gay sacking' row

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An allegedly gay sailor is challenging his discharge from the US Navy, claiming that the Navy and a major Internet service provider breached his right to privacy.

The case of Senior Petty Officer Timothy McVeigh brings together the fear of many Americans about confidentiality on the Internet and current concerns about sex and discipline in the US military, but it also calls into question the effectiveness of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military introduced by President Clinton soon after he took office in 1993.

Under that provision, gays were able to serve in the US armed forces legally for the first time and officers were not permitted to ask them about their sexuality.

The compromise - strongly criticised by gay campaigners at the time - was that gays should not be open about their homosexuality. Mr McVeigh denies that he violated this code and claims that the Navy discovered that he was gay only from reading his subscriber profile on the Internet. The biographical profile, compiled voluntarily by subscribers to the dominant Internet service provider in the US, America Online (AOL) - may be viewed by other users. Mr McVeigh says that he did compile a profile - in fact, he says, he compiled five of them, only one of which mentioned the word "gay".

In a US television interview yesterday, he claimed that the Navy had obtained the information by calling AOL to verify his service record. The investigator was referred to the biographical profile which contained the word "gay". The Navy will not confirm this, but has confirmed the reason for Mr McVeigh's discharge.

Mr McVeigh, who is considering legal action, is due to leave at the end of the week with an honourable discharge. This qualifies him for veteran's medical benefits and an involuntary severance payment, but no pension. A Pentagon spokesman said that there were no plans to review Mr McVeigh's discharge.