U.S. Air Force Photo/Staff Sgt. Benjamin Mota

Hagel Says Ethical Scandals Are a ‘Growing Problem’ in the Military

The defense secretary is worried that the recent spate of ethical scandals in the military is just the tip of the iceberg. By Stephanie Gaskell

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is worried that after more than a decade of fighting two wars, the nation’s military is under a different kind of stress that’s leading to a loss of “moral character.”

One scandal after another has popped up in the news. An Air Force general was fired for drinking and misconduct during a trip to Russia. An officer in charge of the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention program was arrested for attacking a woman outside an Arlington, Va., strip club. A group of nuclear missile operators were suspended for cheating on proficiency exams. Now the Navy is investigating several trainers at its nuclear propulsion program for cheating.

Ethical misconduct is nothing new in the military, but Hagel worried that these cases are just part of a growing trend. “I think he definitely sees this as a growing problem, and he’s concerned about the depth of it,” Pentagon spokesman Adm. John Kirby said Wednesday during a briefing at the Pentagon.

“As a department, we don’t fully know right now what we’re grappling with here,” Kirby said. “Not knowing something like that is something to be concerned about.”

(Related: Military Focuses on Ethics Training Amid Scandals)

The misconduct is now a main topic at Hagel’s weekly meetings with his top staff. “This issue has his full attention,” Kirby said. “Secretary Hagel also believes there must be more urgency behind these efforts and that military leaders, DOD leaders must take a step back and put renewed emphasis on developing moral character and moral courage in our force.”

And whether more than 13 years of war is playing a role is something Hagel is also worried about. “He believes that that is a factor that should be looked at,” Kirby said. “It's a force that's been through a lot, seen a lot -- incredibly resilient -- but has been under stress and strain for a long time.”

And like former Defense Secretary Robert Gates did back in 2008 when he fired the secretary and the chief of staff of the Air Force over poor oversight of the nation’s nuclear weapons, Hagel might just fire some top-level leaders. “Secretary Hagel is not afraid to hold people accountable,” Kirby said. “If it requires holding people accountable, very senior people accountable, he'll do it.” 

In the meantime, Hagel has ordered an internal review of the nuclear force and requested an action plan within 60 days. An independent review of the nuclear enterprise will be led by former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Welsh and retired Adm. John Harvey, former commander of Fleet Forces Command.