Op-Eds by Jim

Witch Hunt In the Navy

October 6, 1992
by James Webb, The New York Times

The Tailhook scandal has been “spun up,” to borrow a service phrase, into a crisis that affects the Navy leadership’s credibility on a wide range of issues. A botched internal investigation and the ongoing revelations of inexcusable harassment of women at a Las Vegas convention of, naval aviators a year ago have also left in their wake a witch hunt that threatens to swamp the entire naval service.

Careers have been ruined, often on the basis of mere innuendo and without a shred of due process And on Sept. 25 Acting Navy Secretary Sean O’Keefe Made a series of sweeping decisions – and one altogether remarkable pronouncement – guaranteeing that the effects of this scandal will reverberate for years.

After forcing the retirement of two rear admirals, reassigning a vice admiral and censuring the Under Secretary of the Navy, Mr. O’Keefe then told a packed briefing room that he needed to “emphasize a very, very important message.” “We get it,” he said. “We know that the larger issue is a cultural problem which has allowed demeaning behavior and attitudes toward women to exist within the Navy.”

There is indeed a larger issue at work here, but it is not the one Mr. O’Keefe mentioned. Mr. O’Keefe, a budgeteer who has yet to sit for Senate confirmation of his post and who has never served in the military, decided after conferring with Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, who likewise has never served, that he has the moral authority to discredit the cultural ethos of the entire Navy based on the conduct of a group of drunken, aviators in a hotel suite.

Then last week Mr. O’Keefe announced a budgetary plan that would move the Navy away from its operational centerpiece, the aircraft carrier. In an era marked by greater emphasis on swift, maneuverable response, he reasoned that future confrontations would begin after lengthy diplomacy – unlike the dozens of recent crises met or preempted through the quick dispatch of carriers.

A vacuum has emerged where the Navy used to have a spine. It was evident in the Tailhook investigation, termed a cover-up by the Pentagon inspector general, that should have been resolved quickly and without sweeping damnation. It is evident today, as the Navy is being maligned and diminished before our eyes.

Where are the senior admirals?

We measure the greatness of institutions by their resilience and tenacity under stress. These traits are manifested through leaders who were imbued, as they made their way up the promotional ladder, with a solemn duty to preserve sacrosanct ideals and pass them on to succeeding generations. A true leader knows that this obligation transcends his own importance, and must outlast his individual tour of duty.

In the military the seemingly arcane concepts of tradition, loyalty, discipline and moral courage have carried the services through cyclical turbulence in peace and war. Their continuance is far more important than the survival of any one leader. It is the function of the military’s top officers to articulate that importance to the civilian political process. And an officer who allows a weakening of these ideals in exchange for self-preservation is no leader at all.

Key military officially began making such swaps during the Vietnam War, beginning an unhealthy pattern that still predominates. Too often, gaining high promotion means, hitching one’s wagon to a political star, all the while either ducking or finessing politically sensitive issues. Today at the highest levels of the U.S. military one searches vainly for a leader who deserves mention along with the giants of the past. Those who might have reached such heights failed the “political correctness” test and were retired as colonels or junior flag officers.

This reality, more than any other factor, explains the devastating and continuing effect of the Tailhook scandal.. Our ranking admirals have learned full well to bob and weave when political issues confront them. And few issues are as volatile as those surrounding the assimilation of women into the military, particularly since ardent feminists have focused on the military as an important symbolic battlefield. Military leaders are at best passive and most often downright fearful when confronted by activists who allege that their culture is inherently oppressive toward females and that full assimilation of women depends only on a change in the mind-set of its misogynist leaders.

And so at this crucial moment, with the reputations, credibility and even the missions of their people at risk, the senior admirals have either hidden or demurred. In the process they have abandoned their most sacred fiduciary duty. In military terms, it is called “loyalty down.” Its abrogation has meant doing nothing as civilian officials condemn their subordinates en masse without rebuttal. It has also meant allowing a few junior admirals to be “taken out back and shot,” as one Pentagon officer put it to me, while they carefully avoid public comment.

The most egregious case to date involves Rear Adm. Jack Snyder, who was summarily relieved of his command once his former aide, Lieut. Paula Coughlin, made her initial accusations regarding Tailhook. Admiral Snyder is a superb officer known for his sensitivity as a leader. He has received dual honors as the Navy’s fighter-pilot of the year and commander of its outstanding fighter squadron.

Once Lieutenant Coughlin told him of the specifics of her case, he flew in from an out-of-town trip, helped her write her complaint regarding the incident, put his own cover letter on the complaint and then hand-carried it to the Chief of Naval Aviation, urging the matter be investigated.

But a second copy made its way to the Chief of Naval Personnel through Lieutenant Coughlin’s personal friends, without Admiral Snyder’s cover letter. He was then relieved, without being allowed to present his own case, ostensibly for having failed to act promptly when Lieutenant Coughlin told him the morning after the incident of being assaulted. Admiral Snyder denies this conversation took place, and there is reason from Naval Investigative Service documents and other interviews to support this denial.

The implications from the forced retirement of the other two rear admirals, as well as a handful of related cases, suggest not that the Navy is getting tough on those who practice intolerance, but that any accusation with political overtones will be treated as a conviction. A lawsuit seems appropriate. Military officers relieved of command have never been allowed constitutional due-process protections, but it would appear that this tradition may have outlived its day. When loyalty disappears, individual protections are the only remedy for the wronged. As for the senior admirals, they cannot have it both ways. Either they agree with Mr. O’Keefe that the entire Navy has a “cultural problem” which has encouraged demeaning behavior toward women, in which case they should be retired for having allowed it to persist without acting on it. Or they do not agree, in which case they must defend their culture where it is warranted, take action where it is needed, and explain why they remained silent while good officers were forced to walk the plank.