BANGKOK (Washington Post) — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has ordered the Pentagon to find out why so many generals and admirals have become embroiled in legal and ethical problems, a trend exacerbated by recent investigations of two of the military’s best-known commanders.
The Pentagon disclosed Panetta’s directive on Thursday after he arrived in Thailand as part of a visit to Asia. But aides insisted that he had been considering the review for some time and that it was not prompted by revelations that the FBI has been investigating former CIA director David Petraeus, a retired Army general, and Marine Gen. John Allen, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
“I will emphasize very strongly that the secretary was going to embark on this course long before the matters that have come to light over the past week,” Pentagon press secretary George Little, told reporters traveling with Panetta here.
The military has been scandalized by several other recent criminal and administrative probes into top officers, an exceedingly high number for a profession that prides itself on honor and probity.
The deputy commander of the storied 82nd Airborne Division was relieved in May in Afghanistan and is now facing criminal charges that he sexually assaulted or engaged in adultery with five women. Last month, the commander of an aircraft carrier strike group in the Persian Gulf was relieved for “inappropriate leadership judgment” and is under investigation by the Navy’s inspector general.
On Tuesday, Panetta demoted the former four-star commander of the military’s Africa Command and ordered him to repay $82,000 for taking lavish or unauthorized trips with his wife.
Another inspector general probe this fall castigated the three-star commander of the Missile Defense Agency for creating a toxic work environment, describing his style as “management by blowtorch and pliers.”
Panetta has said little in public about each of the cases and hasn’t fired any commanders since taking charge at the Pentagon in July 2011. In contrast, his predecessor, Robert Gates, was quick to sack generals and admirals for what he deemed poor performance or a lack of accountability.
In the past, Panetta has said he is tough on commanders when necessary, but usually takes action behind closed doors.
“He hasn’t had to fire anyone at the military rank Gates did because no one at those ranks has done something to warrant it on his watch,” said a senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the Pentagon chief’s leadership style.
At a press conference Thursday in Bangkok, Panetta said he wanted the American public to understand that the vast majority of generals and admirals serve with honor and integrity. “One thing I do demand,” he added, “is that those who seek to protect this country operate by the highest ethical standards.”
Panetta did not mention his order, which the Pentagon announced a few hours later. Aides said Panetta signed it on Wednesday.
The order directs Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to oversee a review of “ethical culture” in the military. The Pentagon said an interim report is due Dec. 1 , and that Panetta will share the results with President Obama.
According to the directive, Panetta said he expects “senior officers and civilian executives to exercise sound judgment in their stewardship of government resources and in their personal conduct.” He added: “An action may be legally permissible but neither advisable nor wise.”
Also Thursday, Panetta said he had no evidence that any other military brass might be entangled in the scandal involving Allen and Petraeus.
“I am not aware of any others that could be involved in this issue at the present time,” Panetta said at his press conference. “I’m sure we’ll have to await and see what additional factors are brought to our attention.”
Panetta has directed the Defense Department’s inspector general to investigate “potentially inappropriate” behavior on the part of Allen after learning that the general and a Tampa socialite had sent each other thousands of emails over a three-year period.
Pentagon officials have been vague about the content of the emails or the nature of the relationship.
On Thursday, Panetta would not answer directly when a reporter asked if the emails were sexually explicit.
“What I don’t want to do is to try to characterize those communications because I don’t want to do anything that would impact on their ability to conduct an objective review of what was contained in those emails,” he said.
The Pentagon has said that Allen, who is married, has denied any wrongdoing. Allen’s associates have said that he did not have an affair with the woman, 37-year-old Jill Kelley, who with her husband frequently entertained high-ranking military officials from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
One senior defense official has described the emails as “flirtatious,” but other defense officials said the tone and sheer scope of the communications warranted further scrutiny.
The FBI has collected between 20,000 and 30,000 pages of documents, most of them emails, that Allen and Kelley sent to each other.
The Pentagon has allowed Allen to remain as commander of the Afghan war while the investigation proceeds.
Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday that he asked Allen earlier in the week if the investigation was too much of a distraction for him to remain an effective commander. Allen, he said, replied that he could handle it.
“I asked him if he thought in the context of this additional stress in his life if he would be affected by it and he assured me that he was ready, willing and able to continue in command, and I absolutely have confidence in his ability to do that,” Dempsey said in an interview Thursday with the American Forces Press Service, the Defense Department’s in-house news agency.
Allen was previously slated to leave his post in Afghanistan early next year and take over as NATO’s supreme allied commander of forces in Europe. Obama nominated him for that job last month, but the Pentagon has asked the Senate to postpone his confirmation hearing until the email investigation is completed.
Dempsey seemed to acknowledge that the probe could take months, raising doubts about whether Allen could take the new job even if he is cleared of wrongdoing.
“I wouldn’t want him to miss that opportunity unless there is reason for that to happen,” Dempsey said. “I don’t see that at this point, but I see this investigation and how long it could take affecting that.”
The emails began in 2010, when Allen was the second-ranking military leader in the U.S. Central Command, and continued after he became commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan in July 2011.
Kelley also was friends with Petraeus, who had been Allen’s boss at Central Command, which is based in Tampa. Petraeus’s mistress became jealous of their closeness and sent anonymous emails to Kelley, trying to keep the two apart. That ultimately led to the FBI’s involvement and Petraeus’s resignation last week.