Presidential candidates are often pressed to defend their military policies in the shadow of a ticking time bomb. At a Fox News debate for Republican candidates this year, moderator Brit Hume asked whether torture would be permissible if terrorists had just attacked three malls and a "larger attack" was imminent. At an MSNBC debate for Democratic candidates, "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert imagined a detainee who knew the location of a bomb ticking inside the U.S. "Don't we have the right and responsibility to beat it out of him?" he asked the candidates.
Such dramatic hypotheticals are not only unrealistic but also beside the point, since experts say torture does not usually elicit reliable information. But the clock is running out on a real national security dilemma that many candidates refuse to confront.
The U.S. intercepts international communications to help anticipate security threats, but thousands of hours of potentially important information can go untranslated.
As the 9/11 Commission documented, the National Security Agency intercepted information on Sept. 10, 2001, implying an attack would begin "tomorrow" -- but it was not translated until days later.
Increased attention and funding after the 2001 attacks did not solve the problem, either, because of chronic personnel shortages. Even years after Sept. 11, more than 120,000 hours of intelligence recordings were neglected because there were too few Arabic translators in the U.S. government, according to an internal FBI investigation.
Delaying the translation, analysis and sorting of such material could obscure a clue to preventing the next attack -- a situation that is like a ticking time bomb.
In 2001, only half of the Army's authorized Arabic translator positions were filled. Today, stretched thin across the board, the entire U.S. military continues to turn away qualified translators and intelligence officers who might help prevent a future attack.
Why? What could possibly embolden any policymaker to reject qualified personnel who would protect our national security?
The personnel are gay.
Under the antiquated "don't ask, don't tell" policy, openly gay Americans are barred from serving in the armed services. The military has kicked out 58 Arabic linguists alone. The government cannot replace translators easily or quickly, either.
After Sept. 11, the FBI launched a massive translator recruitment program, for example, garnering 40,000 applications. Yet only about 200 translators were hired from that pool, because most either lacked technical skills or did not pass the high security clearances for sensitive translations. (The clearance process also lasts about six months.)
It is not just intelligence officers, of course. More than 10,000 members of the armed forces have been booted in the "don't ask, don't tell" model since 1993, according to government statistics. Yet simply allowing gay Americans to serve, including those who were already trained prior to their exclusion, could add more than 40,000 people to the armed services, according to some analysts.
Democratic presidential candidates have correctly identified this issue as one of the many times when national security is advanced by upholding America's commitment to equality under the law. They each support strengthening the U.S. military by allowing all qualified Americans to serve.
Yet Republican candidates are caught between advancing national security and surrendering to the homophobic wing of their base.
It is a small and shrinking faction, even on the right. Eight out of 10 Americans support gays serving openly in the military, including "large majorities of Republicans," as the Boston Globe reported in 2005. Reform looks like a matter of time; nine out of 10 Americans under 30 support gays serving openly.
Yet the leading Republican candidates have all chosen to surrender. They brazenly say they would rather discriminate than enlarge our military with qualified candidates.
Bigotry has many costs, of course. In this instance, Republican pandering to anti-gay sentiment could endanger our national security and allow the preventable injury or death of American citizens.
The recent CNN debate did raise one question about the Republicans' general views of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. But it hardly captured the stakes. For Republicans who aspire to be commander in chief -- and reporters willing to lob hypothetical ticking time bombs for dilemmas that actually exist -- the question is more urgent.
We should ask these candidates:
If information about potential terrorist attacks could be translated only by intelligence officers who were openly gay, would you change policy so they could serve?
The clock is ticking.
This post is adapted from a Politico op-ed by Ari Melber.