The Complex

Empty Chair? Top Officer Seen As Slow to Respond To Ethics Issues Roiling Military

The Pentagon’s response to the recent spate of ethical lapses rocking the entire U.S. military has been devoid of the kind of dramatic moves that Washington craves: there have been no high-profile firings, no generals publicly rebuked, and no announcements of far-reaching punishments that would indicate that the top officials are taking it all seriously. ...

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Pentagon’s response to the recent spate of ethical lapses rocking the entire U.S. military has been devoid of the kind of dramatic moves that Washington craves: there have been no high-profile firings, no generals publicly rebuked, and no announcements of far-reaching punishments that would indicate that the top officials are taking it all seriously.

Those types of measures would typically be carried out by the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel took a small step last week when he announced he would assign a senior officer to his own front office to investigate exactly what has gone wrong recently and to help suggest ways of fixing those issues. Hagel’s top military adviser, Army Gen. Marty Dempsey, meanwhile, has been largely invisible. That’s raised questions about why the Chairman hasn’t been more heavily involved in addressing the cheating scandals rocking the Department, including the Air Force and Navy’s nuclear forces and the embarrassing recent release of emails in which top Army commanders crudely discussed the sexual attractiveness of a female congresswoman.

Dempsey’s defenders say he has been finding ways to reinstill ethical behavior across the armed forces for more than a year and that there are no easy fixes. Still, there are growing concerns inside and outside of the Pentagon that as the nation’s senior military officer, Dempsey has yet to own the issue — or taken the kinds of steps to show that he is seriously addressing it.

"It’s obvious to me that Hagel wants greater results and he’s sending a message to the system: I’m going to change this," said a former senior defense official who has been critical of Hagel in the past but was struck by the Secretary’s decision. "Does it send a message to Marty Dempsey? Absolutely."

Hagel, who typically appears alongside Dempsey in the Pentagon’s briefing room, emerged alone last week to announce that he wanted to assign his own senior officer to deal with the issue.

"Competence and character are not mutually exclusive," Hagel said. "An uncompromising culture of accountability must exist at every level of command.  That must be practiced and emphasized by leadership at every level."

Senior officials said assigning the as-yet-unidentified officer to Hagel’s office was not aimed to be a knock on Dempsey, who was out of the building that day, but that Hagel nonetheless wanted to send a message that the issue needed to be treated with more urgency by all of his generals — including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

Part of the concern about Dempsey’s low profile on the ethics issues has to do with his public demeanor. Dempsey, who is known as the "singing general" for his penchant for breaking out into song, has not embraced the public aspects of the job in the way others have. His immediate predecessor, Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, appeared on "The Daily Show" and seemed very much at ease with the press. Dempsey seems to tolerate reporters, though just barely, but prefers to perform his duties unmolested by the whims of the media. That has not helped him to be seen in and outside of the Pentagon as being strong on the ethical issues confronting the Department.

"He’s eloquent, but [Dempsey] has not demonstrated an ability to keep the spotlight on the reforms that he has developed, and that’s been a concern," according to one administration official.

Dempsey hasn’t ignored the current crisis. Critics of the way the Pentagon has responded to the ethics scandals fault both men for failing to relieve any high-ranking commanders, a move former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates took whenever he wanted to send a clear message that the military was serious about policing itself.  Brigadier General Martin Schweitzer is the only officer who has been disciplined for the current miscues, and it was done quietly by Dempsey.

Schweitzer was punished for writing a series of e-mails to a fellow officer that described Rep. Renee Ellmers, a Republican from North Carolina with whom he had just met, as "smoking hot." Schweitzer then suggested he had masturbated after a meeting with her in his office. While comparably low on the wrongdoing scale — Schweitzer isn’t accused of more serious offenses like financial misdeeds — it reflected the kind of sloppy conduct by senior officers that has been at the heart of the military’s current problems.

Schweitzer, who is and now assigned to the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, has not been relieved. But officials tell Foreign Policy that Dempsey recommended that Schweitzer, who was assigned to brief Hagel on a regular basis, lose that high-profile role because of the allegations against him.
Dempsey’s defenders also note that the chairman has pushed for a number of changes to the ways the military promotes its officers and offers them advanced training as they ascend its hierarchy. Dempsey has been attempting to reshape education and training where appropriate, re-instilling it with the kinds of principles of leadership and professional conduct that have long been the hallmark of military service, say officials. He’s also moved to reform the archaic promotion system, including making changes to officer evaluation reports so they include a "360-degree" assessment from their subordinates that could help identify problems before they manifest themselves. Dempsey has also assigned Marine Lt. Gen. Tom Waldhauser, a well-respected officer, to be his point man on ethics issues on the Joint Staff.

Dempsey’s office sent reporters a statement from the chairman after Hagel’s appearance last week. "The Joint Chiefs and I are concerned and committed to ensuring that our military leaders of all ranks uphold the trust that we’ve established with the American people," Dempsey’s statement said. "This has my full attention."

Defense officials are quick to point out that problems among the senior officer corps do not represent the military in general. But that has contributed to the notion held by some, and Dempsey is thought to be among them, that overreacting to a problem among "a few bad apples" within the officer corps could be detrimental to the military as an institution. That has fed a sense that the Pentagon has been too cautious when it comes to addressing ethical lapses.

At the same time, critics note that the misbehavior doesn’t simply involve senior generals. The ongoing Air Force cheating scandal involves nearly 100 nuclear personnel. The Navy recently uncovered a cheating ring within its own nuclear force that so far has cost about 30 senior enlisted sailors their jobs. And earlier this month, the Army revealed a wide-ranging kickback ring in which hundreds of soldiers may have gamed a recruiting program to unlawfully take $29 million from the government. The scandals are giving the military a black eye as it tries to protect its budget from significant cuts now that the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down.

There’s one other major challenge facing Dempsey and Hagel: the distinctly different cultures that exist across the services when it comes to accountability and transparency. The Navy is known for firing officers – publicly – at any hint of wrongdoing, while the other services, most notably the Army and Marine Corps, discipline their officers more privately. The effort underway now could stumble over the difficulties of how to shore up ethical standards across all of the services while respecting the cultures of each. Dempsey will play a key role in determining whether that new push succeeds or fails. So far at least, it looks as if Hagel believes Dempsey needs a nudge or two.


 Twitter: @glubold

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