The sting

Navy investigators seeking ecstasy dealing at Washington dance clubs are accused of targeting gay sailors.

Published July 18, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

It was already after midnight on a clear, cold night last winter when Army Criminal Investigations Division Agent Carlder Robertson, an attractive, clean-cut military investigator of mixed ethnicity in his early 20s, entered Velvet Nation, an upscale gay nightclub in Washington's Southeast district. The warehouse was packed with a crowd of mostly gay, shirtless men with chiseled torsos dancing sweatily to music by Whitney Houston and Madonna, remixed by trendy DJs from Miami and New York.

Robertson had been called to the club by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service to follow up on a tip by an informant that military members were peddling ecstasy at Velvet Nation and other dance clubs in what the Navy incorrectly dubs Washington's "rave scene." Once inside, Robertson approached men he would later describe as having the physical appearance of those on active military duty, and struck up a conversation, talking over the deafening sound system. They chatted about Velvet Nation's music and the theme of the club, which happens to resemble a military boot camp, thanks to the prevalence of buff, narcissistic, cargo-shorts-clad men who could easily grace the cover of a men's fitness magazine.

After establishing rapport, Robertson and other agents, including Air Force Office of Special Investigations Agent Thomas Roach, asked the apparent service members where they could find ecstasy. One of the men was Petty Officer Eric Brady, a Navy hospital corpsman with five years in the service and three promotions under his belt, who was under the command of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. According to the Navy's version of events, Brady was one of the soldiers who obliged agents' requests for the psychotropic drug, and allegedly exchanged pills for money during the sting.

The agents' visit to Velvet Nation that night -- the account of which is based on interviews with those present at a recent pre-trial hearing on the pending criminal case against Brady -- wasn't the last. After a second visit and another two alleged drug transactions, Brady was arrested and charged with violating Article 112A of the Navy code, which prohibits the distribution of illicit drugs.

But that wasn't the end of the matter. The sailor's lawyer contacted the Servicemembers' Legal Defense Network and gave the gays-in-the-military advocacy group a heads up that the Navy was conducting a drug-sting operation in D.C.-area gay bars. And SLDN in turn began trying to investigate the investigators, to make sure that the anti-drug operation was not in fact a ruse for identifying and discharging gay and lesbian service members.

"We're concerned that the military is selectively targeting patrons of gay-friendly establishments," says Michelle Benecke, executive director of SLDN. But the Navy has staunchly defended its investigation, first reported by the Washington Blade in June, saying it is a clear-cut case of cracking down on drug dealing in the D.C. "rave club" scene, and has nothing to do with its targets' sexual orientation.

"The focus of this particular undercover drug operation is and has always been on military members suspected of selling drugs in the Washington, D.C., area," says NCIS spokesman Paul O'Donnell, defending the operation. "Neither the sexual orientation of the military suspects nor that of the establishments' clientele is relevant."

Washington's non-voting representative to the House, Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., does not share O'Donnell's interpretation of events. "My concern is that in the hearing, the Navy was unable to indicate institutions or bars or similar establishments that were not in the gay community that they were also targeting for drug use," Norton said in a recent telephone interview.

"Drugs [are] one of my major problems in the District of Columbia. If they want to help reduce drug distribution, the last thing they need to do is target a narrow range of gay bars. Until they come forward with evidence that they are generally interested in institutions that Naval personnel may frequent to use drugs, I am exercising my judgment against them. The armed services have been anything but faithful to the so-called don't ask, don't tell policy."

Yet while the Navy insists that it focused not on gay clubs, but on clubs known for on-site drug sales, the only establishments known to be targeted cater to predominantly, though not exclusively, gay crowds: Velvet Nation, JR's Bar and Grill, Badlands and Tracks (which has since closed). "Sting," a Friday night party in the same space housing Velvet Nation that draws a straighter crowd, was the only straight club disclosed during the April 28 Article 32 hearing (the military equivalent of a grand jury).

So far, the Navy has not made public the names of any bars or clubs targeted by the investigation that do not cater to a predominantly gay crowd. But O'Donnell insists that the targets were chosen based on evidence that drug dealing went on there -- evidence that included the testimony of sailors who were interrogated after urinalysis testing had indicated they were consuming drugs. He also says witnesses used in the operation had been "instructed that sexual orientation is irrelevant in any way."

For its part, SLDN says it is concerned about the tactics used in the investigation, not with the specific charges that have been leveled. The issue has been a tough one for SLDN. Always alert to military policies that target gay personnel, the advocacy group was quick to look into charges that the sting operation targeted gays. But it's been reluctant to align itself with a drug culture that has become a staggering social and public relations problem for the gay community.

With research showing that gay men apparently consume illicit drugs in greater proportion than their heterosexual counterparts, public health advocates worry that drugs like ecstasy decrease inhibitions to the point that users may choose to engage in unsafe sex practices and increase the risk of HIV infection. And the focus on gay clubs in the sting operation might be a result of research, not mere prejudice, since anyone who patronizes gay nightclubs knows they seem to attract more than their share of drug taking and drug dealing. (This writer, for example, recently observed a patron at Badlands, one of the nightclubs targeted in the NCIS investigation, purchase cocaine after less than five minutes of searching.)

"We don't condone or defend drug use or the military's right or interest in combating it," says Beneke. "We do oppose selective use of military investigative authority in a way that contravenes" the military's policy on gay soldiers.

Did the Navy conduct a witch hunt? It's hard to say. The sexual orientation of the military personnel involved in the sting hasn't been officially confirmed. But even giving the Navy the benefit of the doubt, the fact remains that the NCIS mounted a sting operation in which the majority of venues catered to gays, and its top brass was ill-prepared to answer the tough-questions -- and face the culture clash -- that ensued. Given the current negative climate surrounding "don't ask, don't tell," the sting operation triggered a predictable backlash that the Navy is, weeks later, still trying to manage.

The drug-sting operation was brought to SLDN's attention by Lt. Matthew Freedus, the JAG corps attorney representing Brady and a Marine (whose name has not been disclosed) who were ensnared in the probe. Freedus told the SLDN that the Navy had been investigating D.C.-area gay bars, and alerted staff attorney Jeffrey Cleghorn about the upcoming Article 32 hearing for one of the soldiers he is representing. Cleghorn attended the hearing.

According to Cleghorn, Navy Special Agent Jack O'Conner testified that the investigation had focused on Velvet Nation, JR's, Badlands and Tracks. When grilled by the defense attorney, O'Conner said the investigation had also taken agents to city streets and military housing. But he could not name any other establishments that had been probed.

SLDN's Benecke and Cleghorn say the gay community is particularly sensitive to the charges because of the military's history of witch hunts and investigating gay bars, which dates back to the Korean War. Before the "don't ask, don't tell" policy was codified in 1993, it was common practice for the military to send agents out into gay bars to try to identify service members, who could then be investigated and discharged, their careers in the military brought to an abrupt end. Agents, according to Benecke, would not only infiltrate gay bars, but also walk through the vicinity, write down any military decals they could find on cars and run them through a database in order to identify people.

"The possibility that the Navy has launched an undercover investigation for the purpose of ferreting out gays sends chills down the spine of people like me, who were quietly serving our country in the '80s," says Benecke, who served as a captain and battery commander in the U.S. Army air defense artillery.

"The problem we have," says SLDN's Cleghorn, "is that all of the evidence in sworn testimony points to them going to gay bars and using this drug angle as a ruse for just trying to harass gay people or, worse, collect information about gays in the military. We have no concrete information to suggest that's exactly what they're doing, but the military has historically targeted gay bars for investigations as far back as the 1950s."

And Benecke asks: "What are they doing with that information? We're concerned that they're targeting 'military-looking' men. It suggests they're casting a wide net and fishing."

But NCIS's O'Donnell says the investigative unit pays no attention to the sexual orientation of the soldiers it probes. The unit, O'Donnell insists, "does not give information to commands that members of their commands are frequenting gay establishments."

According to O'Donnell, the Navy coordinated its investigation with the Washington Metropolitan Police Department and the Drug Enforcement Agency. Since 1997, the operation has nabbed 13 military members who are suspected of distributing ecstasy or other drugs. Four have been discharged, three have court martial proceedings pending and six are still under investigation. Two civilians observed in the operation were also turned over to Washington police. The investigation focused on six D.C.-area bars and nightclubs.

SLDN and local gay activists have requested a full list of the establishments, since those identified so far cater predominantly to gays and lesbians, but the Navy has not yet fulfilled its promise to deliver such a list, and O'Donnell told Salon only that most of the bars or nightclubs "have a mix of gay or straight patrons." The Metropolitan Police Department did not return numerous phone calls or a faxed request for a statement about its involvement in the investigation.

"The focus of this particular undercover drug operation is and always has been on military members suspected of selling drugs in the Washington, D.C., area," O'Donnell stated. "Neither the sexual orientation of the military suspects nor that of the establishments' clientele is relevant. Targets are developed and pursued based on hard criminal intelligence that they are selling drugs." According to a source familiar with the hearing transcript, the Navy obtained the tips from what investigators described as a "reliable informant" who steered them to individual suspects. The Navy would not, the source said, reveal the identity of that information during the hearing.

Between 1996 and May 2000, the NCIS's Washington Field Office closed more than 172 narcotics cases involving service members. But the agency says it does not track statistics on the sexual orientation of patrons at establishments it monitors -- agents only go into clubs where there is "hard criminal intelligence" that drugs are being sold. At press time, the agency could not provide a specific breakdown of drugs involved in previous busts.

But questions persist about the methods used by agents at Velvet Nation. SLDN has asked why investigators targeted the club, and investigators have given contradictory answers. Testimony from the Article 32 hearing suggests that agents may have conducted surveillance of Velvet Nation and other nightclubs to identify service members. But now the Navy is saying that, at least in the court martial proceedings discussed at the hearing, the Navy sailor had invited an agent to two of the bars with him.

Both SLDN and a source close to the case suggest that agents were "flirting" with suspects, but a Navy spokesperson downplayed the insinuation, reiterating that informants were told that sexual identity should not be a factor in the investigation. But Velvet Nation is a cruisy nightclub, filled with over a thousand scantily clad men on any given Saturday, and the suggestion that flirting was not one of the ways agents gained their targets' attention seems disingenuous to some.

"My experience in the gay community," Cleghorn said, "has been that if someone comes up to me at 2 a.m. and strikes up [a] conversation, I consider it a good sign." While there may not have been overt flirtation in the form of physical contact, "just creating the impression that a person is gay, interested in me," is a form of flirtation, he added.

Critics of the investigation, including SLDN, suggest that military agents acted inappropriately (and perhaps illegally) in the way they approached suspects at Velvet Nation and other clubs. SLDN argues that the Navy could, in fact, have been gay-baiting soldiers in order to nail them in its drug sting. But in the Article 32 hearing, according to Cleghorn, Robertson said he did not pretend he was gay when approaching suspects. It's a question of interpretation that requires a cultural sensitivity that critics say the military lacks.

In testimony, according to Cleghorn, O'Conner stated that his NCIS office didn't have enough younger agents to pull off an effective investigation in the clubs, so they brought in attractive young investigators from local Army and Air Force offices to send out to Velvet Nation and other clubs.

Once it learned of the anti-drug sting, SLDN moved quickly with local gay organizations to launch a counteroffensive and opposition research. With the local chapter of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, it produced 1,000 handbills that were distributed at local gay bars warning patrons of the ongoing investigation, and JR's sponsored a full-page ad in a local gay newspaper, warning of the investigation and soliciting information from patrons who might know more about the operation.

SLDN also sent a letter outlining its concerns about the investigation to Norton; Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.; Julian Potter, the White House liaison to the gay community; Gen. Barry McCaffrey of the White House drug office; Navy Secretary Richard Danzig and a handful of others. The SLDN figured Frank, Norton and Potter would exert their considerable influence to get some answers from Danzig and others at the Pentagon.

Under pressure, the NCIS offered SLDN an olive branch in the form of two meetings with its director. On June 21, NCIS director David Brant and assistant director Tom Houston met with SLDN legal director Stacey Sobel to "clear up misinformation and confusion surrounding the undercover drug operation." According to his spokesman, Brant also answered Norton's concerns with a letter explaining the undercover drug operation and an invitation to meet with him that has gone unanswered. Sobel described the outcome of the first meeting and a follow-up as a "good start."

And already some good has come out of the meetings, Sobel says. "They've made a number of promises about how they conduct themselves, and we want to see those in writing -- we want to see that those are actually the policies of those organizations. They have made assurances to us that they're not going into bars specifically to determine the sexual orientation of service members," says Sobel. "If they do see information about a person's sexual orientation, they don't report that because it's not relevant to a drug case. It won't go into a service member's record. But I want to see something in writing."

But the military doesn't have anything in writing -- yet. "I asked very specifically whether they had any policy, guidance, memoranda or training materials on the 'don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue, don't harass' policy, and they said 'no.' I said it would probably be beneficial for them to have these types of materials. This was something we could work on together," she says. Brant agreed to accept materials from SLDN and expressed a willingness to work on developing his own. "We look forward to working with them to give their agents information about the policy and how service members are impacted by what they do."

"We still need some more information to make final decisions on what happened here," Sobel concludes. "But we've had some very good meetings with the NCIS and they've definitely shown a willingness to work with us. I'm hopeful that they've also realized the seriousness of how investigations that are not related to sexual orientation can still affect a service member."

It's doubtful that SLDN's efforts will aid the two men facing trial and discharge as a result of the investigation. The Marine has been referred to a special court martial, which is more like a misdemeanor, with a maximum of six months confinement, a bad conduct discharge, reduction to the lowest rank and forfeiture of all pay and allowance. The military is notoriously heavy-handed on drug convictions, so any sentence will probably be close to the stiffest punishment permitted.

Brady has been referred to a general court martial, the severest charge you can get in the military, analogous to a felony charge with the possibility of more than 12 months in the slammer, plus all the punitive measures given in a special court martial.

By Daryl Lindsey

Daryl Lindsey is associate editor of Salon News and an Arthur Burns fellow. He currently lives in Berlin and writes for Salon and Die Welt.

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Don't Ask Don't Tell Drugs Lgbt U.s. Military