Name the greater risk to national security: patriotic military translators who happen to be homosexual or anti-American Islamofascist terrorists who happen to be homicidal. If you picked the latter, thanks for putting U.S. safety first. Alas, the Pentagon disagrees.

According to new Defense Department data, between fiscal years 1998 and 2003, 20 Arabic- and six Farsi-language experts were booted from the military under President Bill Clinton’s 1993 “don’t ask/don’t tell” policy. These GIs trained at the elite Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif. Had they graduated _ assuming 40-hour workweeks and two-week vacations _ they could have dedicated 52,000 man-hours annually to interrogate Arab-speaking bomb builders, interpret intercepted enemy communications or transmit reassuring words to bewildered Baghdad residents.

Preparation for these vital activities ends when a dedicated warrior is found to be gay. Under “don’t ask,” if that GI’s homosexuality becomes evident, he must stop conjugating verbs and head home.

Just ask former Army Sgt. Ian Finkenbinder. The 22-year-old Eugene, Ore., native spent eight months as an Arabic linguist with the Third Infantry Division in Iraq. As a military intelligence officer, he helped other linguists collect information from captured Iraqis.

“Our efforts saved lives and improved the quality of life for soldiers around us,” he says by phone. He served in units that took enemy fire and merited an Army Commendation Medal and Good Conduct Medal. He earned about $36,000 annually.

After the 3rd I.D. returned to Fort Stewart, Ga., Finkenbinder sensed that some in his reorganized unit were discussing his personal life behind his back. In November, after a year of increasing discomfort, he handed his commander, Capt. James Finnochiaro, a written statement of his homosexuality. Finkenbinder was honorably discharged last month.

“I went to Iraq once,” Finkenbinder says. “I met that challenge. I knew perfectly well I would be able to meet that challenge again.” Still, he wondered, “whether I would be able to serve an institution that had discriminated against me for four years by asking me to maintain my silence, as well as these isolated incidents of people saying things that they shouldn’t.”

Since being booted from the Army, Finkenbinder seeks other work for his Arabic-language skills.

This problem extends beyond those who can communicate with combative Iraqis, duplicitous Saudis or atom-splitting Iranians. Including Finkenbinder, at least 74 language specialists have been jettisoned from the military between fiscal 1998 and 2003. At least 37 were dismissed after 9/11, reports Nathaniel Frank, an adjunct history professor at New York University. Frank is also a senior research fellow at the University of California-Santa Barbara’s Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military. His findings appear in the Jan. 24 New Republic.

Those whose homosexuality impressed the Pentagon more than their rare verbal talents include 18 Korean speakers (visualize Kim Jong Il), 11 Russophones, eight Spanish specialists, three Mandarin Chinese experts, three Serbo-Croatian speakers (Kosovo, anyone?) and one each steeped in German, Hebrew, Italian and Vietnamese.

Even worse, Arabic- and Farsi-speaking Islamists plot to murder Americans, even as the United States sacks those who prepare to interrogate them and unravel their plans. While the Pentagon purges these dedicated public servants, Islamic extremists chatter away.

America “is without a working channel of communications to the world of Muslims and Islam,” the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board recently warned. The 9/11 Commission concluded that Uncle Sam “lacked sufficient translators proficient in Arabic and other key languages, resulting in significant backlog of untranslated intercepts.”

Congress should replace “don’t ask” with a non-discriminatory policy based on conduct, rather than orientation: Soldiers on duty, gay and straight, must keep their hands to themselves, or face expulsion. Barring such reform, commanders should be allowed to retain soldiers whose value to unit safety and mission outweighs any reservations about their sexuality.

Elements of the 3rd I.D. returned to Iraq on Jan. 8, this time without Ian Finkenbinder. He is troubled that they are there, and he is here, unable to speak Arabic to help protect them.

“Going to war with people makes them your family, and I am still very close to all of them,” he says. “We still communicate as frequently as possible. But there are definitely moments when I wish I were there with them _ with my family.”

(New York commentator Deroy Murdock is a columnist with Scripps Howard News Service.)