WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is about to embark on a sweeping reorganization of the Naval Investigative Service, the largely civilian Navy law-enforcement arm that was accused by the Defense Department on Thursday of botching the investigation of the Tailhook affair.
The restructuring, which marks the third major overhaul of the NIS over the last 10 years, has raised serious questions about why the scandal-plagued agency has proved so trouble-prone in recent years and whether the latest attempt at reform can succeed.
Legal experts and former NIS agents said the patterns ascribed to the NIS in this week's report are the same ones that have propelled the controversial investigative agency into several major blowups in the last six years.
They said the pressure to shield the top brass and protect the Navy as an institution--while heaping all the blame on lower-ranking personnel--has been evident in other recent NIS investigations.
And they argue that the agency is less disciplined than its Army and Air Force counterparts because of structural problems that include agents who are young and inexperienced, an emphasis on hiring civilians as investigators and constant rotation of personnel.
"The Navy's whole investigative technique . . . should be under serious question," Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters after an earlier controversy.
The Pentagon said Thursday that among the changes it plans to make in the NIS is to broaden civilian authority by replacing the one-star admiral who heads the organization with a civilian who has extensive legal experience.
It also plans to change the agency's name to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and strip the organization of its responsibility for investigating government procurement fraud and possibly its counterintelligence work.
Still, a House Armed Services subcommittee is expected to intensify its investigation of the NIS. Despite the Pentagon's preference for leaving the NIS intact, Congress is considering combining it with its Army and Air Force counterparts as a single unit in the Defense Department.
The report by the Pentagon's inspector general was sharply critical of the NIS leadership. It said the NIS flatly muffed the investigation of the Tailhook scandal and refused to cooperate with other authorities in the Navy.
And it said that Rear Adm. Duvall M. Williams Jr., the NIS commander, had disparaged female pilots as "go-go dancers" and told Pentagon officials that he did not believe that women belonged in the military at all.
Williams and another admiral were forced to retire, the Navy said. And a third flag officer is to be reassigned. "It looks as though it was mainly a question of the agency's leadership," one former naval officer asserted.
Experts here said the botched Tailhook inquiry fits a pattern in recent years of flawed NIS investigations, with damage so great on some occasions that the cases could not be salvaged. For example:
--In 1987, the NIS messed up an investigation of alleged misconduct by Marine guards in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, subjecting suspects to long interrogations and eliciting confessions they later repudiated. Of four Marines arrested, only one was brought to trial.
--In 1989, based on faulty interviews and outlandish deduction, the agency blamed the explosion aboard the USS Iowa, which killed 47 crew members, on a single sailor who it said had committed suicide. Subsequent reviews showed that the conclusion was improbable.
--In 1989, the NIS mishandled investigations of rapes and sexual assaults at its Orlando, Fla., training center so badly it may have prompted some victims to recant their statements, according to an inspector general's report.
--Earlier this year, an NIS investigator looking into alleged sexual assaults at last year's Tailhook Assn. convention was accused of making romantic overtures to a female officer who is one of the alleged victims, calling her "sweetcakes" as she looked at ID photos of possible suspects. More than two dozen women have reported being run through a gantlet of naval aviators who were attending the Las Vegas convention.
To be sure, the NIS also has had its recent successes. Joe Aronica, a U.S. attorney in Virginia who headed a strike force that prosecuted the Ill Wind cases, which involved corruption in weapons procurement, said the agency did "an outstanding job."
The Ill Wind scandal is widely considered to have been one of the most successful prosecutions of white-collar crime in U.S. history. More than 50 government and corporate executives eventually were convicted.
And the NIS generally was given high marks in a 1986 investigation involving members of a Navy SEAL team, some of whom later were charged with financial improprieties and bribery. The government won a spate of convictions.
But interviews with former Defense Department officials and former investigators for the NIS suggest there are problems that undermine the NIS' investigations even before they begin.
"They don't want to take evidence," one former investigator said. "It's just: 'Let's clean the ship up, flush everything overboard and take immediate action to be ready for the next crisis.' " By contrast, he said, the Army and Air Force pursue cases relentlessly.
Knowledgeable officials said such flaws are exacerbated by the youth and inexperience of many NIS agents, which makes them particularly vulnerable to pressure from above.
Times staff writers John Broder and Melissa Healy contributed to this story.