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New Criticisms Cloud Army Sex Probe

Military: Prosecution of harassment cases could be undercut by claims of investigative misconduct, experts say. Inquiries will continue, official says.

March 13, 1997|PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Army's sexual-misconduct scandal, which days ago seemed destined for a clear-cut resolution in the courts, has exploded suddenly with allegations that could further damage the Army's image and leave the public unconvinced that justice has been done.

In echoes of the Navy's Tailhook scandal and similar military controversies, the Army has been accused of using improper investigative methods and allowing racism to taint its search for culprits at its northeastern Maryland ordnance center in Aberdeen.

Some experts say that the accusations, although they may prove unfounded, could undermine some of the harassment cases, leaving a public impression that the inquiry was mismanaged and that some people were falsely accused--while other crimes went unpunished.

"The Army may end up with the worst of all worlds: They may look like they first ignored the problem, then overreacted, then compounded it with racism," said Lawrence J. Korb, the Pentagon personnel chief in the Reagan administration.

In the swirl of accusations, "there's going to be a question about the validity of all the claims in the perception of the public," predicted Tony Palm, a retired Navy investigator.

Through most of the 6-month-old Aberdeen investigation, the Army had been getting good marks for its efforts from members of Congress and from some--if not all--women's rights activists. It appeared that court-martial proceedings would be fairly straightforward, focusing directly on sexual-misconduct charges.

But the cases became far more complicated and the Army's efforts to manage the crisis were cast in doubt when the NAACP recently questioned why all the men who have been formally accused are black.

The question assumed greater importance Tuesday when five young women from the base came forward to say Army investigators used bully tactics to get them to accuse their drill instructors of rape. Instead, according to sworn statements by the women, only consensual sex took place.

On Capitol Hill, Secretary of the Army Togo West Jr. said Wednesday that he did not intend to halt the judicial proceedings while the allegations of investigative misconduct are examined. "We want to make sure we don't disrupt the ongoing proceedings," he said.

West met at the Pentagon with NAACP President Kweisi Mfume but rejected a call by the group for an outside investigation into the Army's handling of its sexual-harassment inquiry. "I think we have oversight enough," West said.

Separately, the Congressional Black Caucus called for congressional hearings into the issues of racism and investigative misconduct.

Meanwhile, Army officials announced that another Aberdeen soldier has been charged. Staff Sgt. Herman Gunter was charged with two counts of rape, as well as obstruction of justice. That brings to 13 the number of men charged. All are black.

Army officials have strongly denied the allegations of racism and investigative misconduct. But defense attorneys are already indicating that they plan to use the allegations as part of their legal strategy.

Korb, the former assistant Defense secretary, said past cases suggest that establishing coercive or heavy-handed tactics by military investigators has helped clear one or more defendants in high-profile cases.

He also said that, if the allegations of racism prove true in some of the Aberdeen cases, it would have wide-ranging effects on public opinion, convincing some Americans that many or all of the allegations of sexual misconduct were trumped up.

"People will think, 'If they [Army investigators] pressured these women, what about all these others?' You get a good defense lawyer working on this and the whole thing [public perception] can be changed," Korb said.

When the sexual misconduct allegations first surfaced at Aberdeen, Pentagon officials immediately vowed to find the guilty parties and enforce a policy of "zero tolerance" of sexual misconduct in the service.

But some experts believe that such comments may have set back the cause of justice by adding to the pressure on Army investigators to find wrongdoers, to do so quickly and to pin down as many serious crimes as possible.

"Everyone who's anyone at the Pentagon has deplored this behavior," said David M. Brahms, a retired Marine general and specialist in criminal law. "That sends a message to investigators: 'It's my job to get these people.' "

Investigators' conduct became a major issue in the Tailhook scandal, which grew out of a rowdy 1991 convention in which 117 Navy fliers assaulted or harassed 90 women. But charges against many of the fliers fell apart amid accusations that investigators, facing intense political pressure, had gone too far in trying to draw the truth from men who were trying to protect their colleagues.

Military investigators' tactics were also at issue in the 1987 sex-for-secrets scandal involving Marine guards at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Only one, Cpl. Clayton Lonetree, was convicted.

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