Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 6, 2017.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 6, 2017. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Military Watchdogs Defend Process for Probing Officer Misconduct

Rep. Speier wants tougher standards for sexual abuse cases.

Ticking off a string of cases of scandalous personal behavior by selected high-ranking military officers—from workplace adultery, to visits to strip clubs, to accepting bribes—a key House Democrat on Wednesday challenged brass in the services and the inspector generals community to toughen standards for punishment of wayward officers.

Many senior officers are “not being held to the same standards as the rank and file,” said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., ranking member of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel. “It’s clear that deterrence is not working.”

Dominating the panel’s Wednesday hearing, Speier cited Pentagon watchdog numbers that she said showed a high percentage of reported accusations against officers leading to no action, and said they showed a “problem of different spanks for different ranks.”

At the hearing, Defense Department acting inspector general Glenn Fine provided different and comprehensive numbers. Fine said his office and the service’s inspector generals have seen the number of investigations decline and then stay steady, from 427 in fiscal 2010 to 144 in fiscal 2017. The substantiation rate increased from 14 percent to 34 percent in that period, he added, attributing those changes to a more thorough complaint intake process.

“There are a significant number of substantiated allegations against senior officials engaging in inappropriate relationships, and these cases have received substantial public attention,” Fine acknowledged.

Many complaints “are referred down to the services investigated and closed down,” he told Speier. “We do look at them seriously.” But he added for “perspective” that in 2017, only two percent of flag officers and Senior Executive Service members were involved in substantiated misconduct cases.

Most of the cases reflect a lack of understanding of administrative or technical violations of travel, ethics or financial procedures, the military IGs said. “Giving out a [collectible, traditional] challenge coin to a contractor” was the example given by Lt. Gen. Stayce D. Harris, IG for the Air Force.

In the Navy, many accusations involve “gifts from a lunch with contractor that are more than the limit,” mistaken endorsement of a nonfederal charities, or inappropriate documentation of leave, said Vice Adm. Herman Shelanski, the Navy’s IG. He said officers are treated more harshly for misconduct, noting that an enlisted sailor caught watching porn on a ship might receive a reduced rank and be banned from the computer for six months. But a flag officer, he said, would be removed and retired at a lower rank.

More emphatic in defending the system was Army Inspector General Lt. Gen. David Quantock, who said “a very small minority” of Army officers and civilian senior leaders had committed misconduct.

“That small faction does not represent the character of the entire officer corps,” Quantock said.

Some of the accusations are as minor as lying on height and weight charts, approving inappropriate plane flyovers, or misusing subordinates’ time.

Quantock was especially critical of the whistleblower reprisal cases, which he said eat up a lot of time, harm reputations unfairly, and achieve only a 4 percent substantiation rate. Most are “a misuse of the whistleblower reprisal process,” he said. The increase is “out of control, in my view,” adding that it has “cast a dark cloud over the officer corps.”

If Congress were to move toward removing officers from their role in adjudicating under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, it would be “devastating,” Quantock said. “We are not Wal-Mart; we send soldiers to do dangerous things,” he said. “We would become a Third World country if the Army removed commanders from the UMJC.”

He described the existing process as “very thorough and fair,” noting civilian input during extensive legal reviews of each case. “One day we will wake up and ask, who wants to serve when we put them through hell?” Quantock declared.

His defense of the current system drew support from Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., a retired Air Force general who noted that “less than a handful of senior officers have done something criminal.” Bacon expressed concern that the investigations take too much time. Fine replied that his team seeks to provide “timely” resolutions, balancing that pressure against the need to be accurate and thorough.

More outraged was Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla., who demanded to know why some “want to trash the Uniform Code of Military Justice” for politics. He called the critics “people with no understanding of the institution” headed by officers tasked with difficult battlefield decisions. “It’s strange to say they’re unprofessional when they discovered their own problems,” Russell added. “The military has a better rate of accountability than Congress and Hollywood.”

Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass, expressed concern with “military commanders functioning as IGs,” which is an inherent conflict of interest in favor of officers, she said.

Speier said, “The Uniform Code of Military Justice is not on trial here. We have an obligation to do oversight. And I take great umbrage in your saying we don’t have a role,” she added, noting that the Fat Leonard-Singapore port bribery case involved 60 admirals, and that the Air Force has not court-martialed any officers. “Why should Congress be the last to know about cases they learn about in newspapers? she asked.

And she said that the whistleblower-protection laws are not enough, which is why whistleblowers don’t come forward.

Looking to solutions, Fine explained that his office is conducting quality assessment of the military service IGs’ handling of the cases and reallocating resources. But “it is critical” to have more staff, he said. His office is also analyzing misconduct cases by rank, service, gender and race and seeking a standard format for case reports.

Top officers from the services testified to the ongoing education efforts for a “continuum of learning” for all officers in avoiding misconduct. “All of our flag officers and Navy senior executives and their staffs must receive in-person ethics training on an annual basis, complemented by a mandatory ethics audit,” said Adm. Bill Moran, vice chief of naval operations. “They are made fully aware that even the appearance of impropriety will severely degrade our ability to maintain and grow the public trust.”

Speier insisted that “we do have a problem with different spanks for different ranks. We just passed a sexual harassment bill in the House,” she added, “and we’re expecting to have the same standards of conduct in the military.”