After firing 60 Arabic translators for being gay under the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ law, the US military has been forced to rely on an untested translating machine, it emerged this week.

US National Institute of Standards and Technology researchers are now testing a prototype, real-time, two-way translation system to meet the shortfall of translators in Iraq, where linguistic misunderstandings can be fatal.

“The military is placing homophobia well ahead of national security,”said Steve Ralls, spokesman for the Servicemembers Legal Defence Network, speaking to AP.

“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.”

Experts have identified the shortage of Arabic linguists as a major factor in the US government’s failure to thwart the September 11 attacks.

The independent September 11 commission came to the same conclusion.

The policy, introduced in 1994, states that gay, bisexual or lesbian people can serve in the Armed Forces as long as they conceal their orientation.

If army personnel are discovered to be LGB then they are sacked, but commanding officers are not allowed to ask military personnel about their sexual orientation.

Decorated sergeant and Arabic language specialist Bleu Copas, 30, told AP he is gay, but said he was ‘outed’ by a stream of anonymous e-mails to his superiors.

“I knew the policy going in,” said Copas, who enlisted, he said, out of a post-Septmber 11 sense of duty to his country.

“I knew it was going to be difficult.”

Copas was honourably discharged after an eight-month investigation.

The policy is becoming “a very effective weapon of vengeance in the

armed forces” said Steve Ralls, a spokesman for the SLDN, a Washington-based organisation working to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Copas said he was never open about his sexuality in the military and suspects his accuser was someone he had slighted.

In May, Members of the US House of Representatives requested an

investigation into the dismissals.

Around 40 Congressmen and women signed a letter to the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, stating that the loss of such

“capable, highly skilled Arabic linguists continues to compromise our national security during time of war.”

Representative Marty Meehan, a Democrat from Massachusetts, serves on the House Armed Services Committee and has led the fight for repeal of the current policy towards gays in the military.

He organised the written request after it emerged that the Arabic

speakers had been fired.

“At a time when our military is stretched to the limit and our

cultural knowledge of the Middle East is dangerously deficient, I just can’t believe that kicking out able, competent Arabic linguists is making our country any safer,” Congressman Meehan said.

A Pentagon spokesman said the military was simply enforcing the law.

“The Department of Defence must ensure that the standards for

enlistment and appointment of members of the armed forces reflect the policies set forth by Congress,” said Marine Major Stewart Upton.

A February 2005 report from the Government Accountability Office

reported that the Pentagon had fired 322 language specialists who “had skills in a foreign language that Department of Defence had considered to be especially important.”

In January an Army general who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of

Staff in the US military has called for a change in attitude towards gay and lesbian soldiers.

John Shalikashvili was chairman from 1993 – 1997, and it was during

his tenure that the policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was introduced.

At the time he argued that had argued that openly gay and lesbian

personnel would hurt troop morale and undermine the cohesion of combat units.

Conversations with gay service members, “showed me just how much the military has changed, and that gays and lesbians can be accepted by their peers,” the general said.

Since 1993, more than 11,000 service members have been dismissed under the gay ban, according to the Department of Defence.