Pentagon unveils plan to curtail unethical conduct by senior officers

The ethics problems that rocked the Pentagon’s senior officer corps last year and resulted in a number of investigations and ruined careers, is forcing the Defense Department to expand training, emphasize ethics in military education and require a new way to assess the character of officers by their peers – and their subordinates. The Pentagon’s ...

T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images
T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images
T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

The ethics problems that rocked the Pentagon’s senior officer corps last year and resulted in a number of investigations and ruined careers, is forcing the Defense Department to expand training, emphasize ethics in military education and require a new way to assess the character of officers by their peers – and their subordinates.

The Pentagon’s Joint Staff has just finished an ethics review that was put into high gear late last year after a series of problems among a number of senior officers that culminated with the removal of former four-star general David Petraeus from the CIA, and an investigation into the war commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen. The ethics review, conducted by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey, didn’t find widespread wrongdoing or create a laundry list of specific actions to be mandated across the Defense Department. Instead, Dempsey seems to have refocused the officer corps on ethics issues by mandating a few initiatives department-wide and then requiring that the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines work to come up with solutions specific to their departments. Other issues, like the definition of what an official function is or how and when to use enlisted aides, will fall to the Office of the Secretary of Defense to determine and then standardize the rules across the military. In many ways, the review only begins a new effort to begin to inculcate the military with stronger ethical guidance.

The review, completed just recently and briefed to FP’s National Security on Friday, addresses some of the very issues that arose from specific cases in which general or flag officers found themselves in hot water: from pushing for more department-wide clarity and consistency on regulations that govern ethical behavior, to expanded support and training for aides who provide administrative support to senior officers. For example, the services and Joint Staff are developing ways to infuse military education with more focus on ethical conduct. It’s also creating a way to enforce compliance with ethics rules by having “assistance teams” visit commands and determine if the rules are being followed. Aides who provide administrative support – but can, in some cases, be the de facto decision makers on important matters, from what functions a commander attends to who goes on a trip – will get additional training.

The ethics problems that rocked the Pentagon’s senior officer corps last year and resulted in a number of investigations and ruined careers, is forcing the Defense Department to expand training, emphasize ethics in military education and require a new way to assess the character of officers by their peers – and their subordinates.

The Pentagon’s Joint Staff has just finished an ethics review that was put into high gear late last year after a series of problems among a number of senior officers that culminated with the removal of former four-star general David Petraeus from the CIA, and an investigation into the war commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen. The ethics review, conducted by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey, didn’t find widespread wrongdoing or create a laundry list of specific actions to be mandated across the Defense Department. Instead, Dempsey seems to have refocused the officer corps on ethics issues by mandating a few initiatives department-wide and then requiring that the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines work to come up with solutions specific to their departments. Other issues, like the definition of what an official function is or how and when to use enlisted aides, will fall to the Office of the Secretary of Defense to determine and then standardize the rules across the military. In many ways, the review only begins a new effort to begin to inculcate the military with stronger ethical guidance.

The review, completed just recently and briefed to FP’s National Security on Friday, addresses some of the very issues that arose from specific cases in which general or flag officers found themselves in hot water: from pushing for more department-wide clarity and consistency on regulations that govern ethical behavior, to expanded support and training for aides who provide administrative support to senior officers. For example, the services and Joint Staff are developing ways to infuse military education with more focus on ethical conduct. It’s also creating a way to enforce compliance with ethics rules by having “assistance teams” visit commands and determine if the rules are being followed. Aides who provide administrative support – but can, in some cases, be the de facto decision makers on important matters, from what functions a commander attends to who goes on a trip – will get additional training.

The review also includes a mandate for the services to create a performance evaluation tool to assess leaders from all angles – a “360-degree” evaluation.

Despite an increasing number of investigations against senior officers, defense officials are quick to point out that only a small number of them are ever substantiated, and even those represent a small number of officers. Regardless, maintaining the public trust is the highest priority, said Lt. Gen. George Flynn, director of joint force development for the Joint Staff, in an interview in his office in the Pentagon.

“If one individual can impact how people view one thousand people on the issue of trust, you have to do everything you can,” said Flynn, who along with other senior officers on the Pentagon’s Joint Staff helped conduct the review. “When you are talking about trust it is probably the one area where you have to have zero defects.”

A number of high-profile ethics cases involving senior officers raised high-level attention to the issue of senior officer ethics last year. The problems ran the gamut, from the financial and ethical mismanagement of U.S. Africa Command by Gen. William “Kip” Ward to the abusive command climate Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly was investigated for at the Missile Defense Agency. Adm. James Stavridis, head of U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, was investigated for different issues, among them travel and expenses, but was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing.

Such cases pointed up the need for commanders’ aides to be better versed in the rules governing ethical behavior – as well as the necessity for senior officers to know the rules themselves. A push to elevate the issue of ethical behavior among senior officers was quietly underway but was accelerated after the sex scandal that felled Petraeus and jeopardized the career of Allen.

"We need to do a better job making sure our senior folks and especially their staffs are well aware of the rules and regulations,” said one senior officer who did not participate formally in the Joint Staff review. “Very, very few people are trying to do anything bad like have an affair, pass classified information, or abuse their people — the vast majority are good leaders trying to comply with very complex regulations on travel, official gift exchanges, and support."

But another senior officer said he worries that the Pentagon could be seen as not taking the ethics issue seriously, and that could send the wrong message to Congress, society at large and even the rank-and-file of the uniformed military.

“I’m not worried about us overreacting too much,” the officer said. “I think the greater risk is conveying a message to [society, Congress and the enlisted corps] that we’re really OK, that, yeah, we had a couple of bad guys but the rest of us are just fine.”

The 360-degree assessment or performance evaluation is likely the most tangible takeaway from the review process. It will mean officers will be evaluated by their peers, superiors and subordinates. “A 360-degree assessment mechanism will provide our leaders with greater self-awareness, serve as an inherent check against destructive leadership and misconduct, and provide a more complete picture of emerging leaders for raters and selection boards,” according to a memo on the review signed by Dempsey. “We will establish both joint and service Senior Fellow programs to enhance the use of these assessments in professional development.” The Army uses such assessments now, but on a more limited basis.

Dempsey was personally involved with the review but designated subordinates like Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, director of the Joint Staff, and Flynn as action officers. Dempsey held several discussions with the service chiefs in the secure meeting room in the Pentagon’s E-Ring known as “the tank.”

The effort found a number of areas that needed strengthening or more clarity, but some of those issues will have to be addressed not within the Joint Staff, which has direction over training, for example, but the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which would determine travel regulations and the use of certain personnel on trips.

Flynn emphasized that the tone of the actions to be taken is less punitive and more positive reinforcement. For example, new “assistance visits” will be comprised of officials well-versed in military rules and regulations who will visit commands to ensure that senior officers and their aides and those who provide other administrative support are doing the right thing. The teams aren’t met to seem like a health inspector showing up at a restaurant to look for vermin, but more as a tool to help steer commands and commanders toward compliance.

“It’s designed to assure compliance, it’s not designed to be a punitive thing,” said Flynn.

Some aspects of the moves to be taken will be left to the services. Depending on the issue, Flynn said, it’s important not to dictate a certain way of doing things to the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines.

“General Dempsey is not going to tell [Marine Corps Commandant] General Amos what to do in the Marine Corps,” Flynn said. “He’s not going to get into service prerogatives or department prerogatives.”

But one senior officer said leaving too much to the services could dull the impact of the changes by leaving too much room for each initiative to be interpreted and implemented differently. “I recognize that
there are service cultures at play here but I think there should be some degree of standardization, which I think we can do while still recognizing the historical and cultural service differences,” he said.

Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He is also the author of FP's Situation Report, an e-mailed newsletter that is blasted out to more than 70,000 national security and foreign affairs subscribers each morning that includes the top nat-sec news, breaking news, tidbits, nuggets and what he likes to call "candy." Before arriving at FP, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he wrote on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular Morning Defense early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Latin America as well as at American military bases across the country. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including on CNN, public radio's Diane Rehm and To the Point, and C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children. Twitter: @glubold

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