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Commodore Eric Lerhe, commander of Canada's Pacific fleet, has been suspended from his post after confessing he accessed sex sites on the Internet using his defense department laptop while off duty.

Lerhe, 52, has been charged under Canada's National Defense Act with violating the military's standards of "good order and discipline."

He was charged after he told his superior, Vice Adm. Ron Buck, of his off-duty surfing. He made the confession when he was told he would be sitting in judgment of one of his sailors for a similar offense.

He now faces penalties ranging from a reprimand to court-martial.

The case has stirred considerable controversy.

David Bright, a Halifax civilian defense lawyer who specializes in court-martial cases, said Lerhe was being "sacrificed on the altar of perceived political correctness."

Brian MacDonald, a retired colonel, described the response to Lerhe's actions as "idiocy," given the amount of money and time the military has invested in training him.

Retired Adm. Fred Crickard agreed that relieving Lerhe of his command simply because he violated a regulation and not a law by using a government computer instead of his own is "overkill."

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."

Lerhe has admitted using his military computer to access "Penthouse-style" soft porn sites while he was posted out of the country, but he said he did it only when he was off duty and while using his personal Internet account.

Canadian Forces policy forbids the use of the Internet to view sexual materials in any form "for non-work-related use."

Because of Lerhe's rank, there are only two options open to Buck -- send the case to prosecutors for a court-martial trial or refer it to the naval chain of command for disposition.

Lerhe, who joined the Canadian Forces in 1976, has been awarded the Order of Military Merit for "conspicuous merit and exceptional service" and the Canadian Decoration for good service.

Art Hanger, the defense critic for the opposition Canadian Alliance Party, said instead of charging Lerhe, he should be commended for his forthrightness and honor in revealing his actions rather than hypocritically judging a subordinate.

Maj. John Pumphrey, spokesman for the military's national investigative service, said the charge was no different than what employees in the private sector might face for using company computers for personal surfing.

However, Margaret Wente, a columnist for Toronto's Globe and Mail newspaper, wrote that she needed to "clear my conscience" by confessing her use of a Globe computer to visit sites that "arouse women," such as those offering virtual tours of France and "ravishing" linens.

The Canadian military, she wrote, 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."

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