WASHINGTON — The candidacy of Defense Secretary William S. Cohen's top choice as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was thrown into doubt Wednesday night by disclosures that the officer had conducted a year-long adulterous affair.
Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, now vice chairman of the joint chiefs, broke the military's rules against adultery by carrying on the affair with a civilian Central Intelligence Agency employee in 1983-84 while he was separated from his then-wife, Pentagon officials said.
The news extends a week-long string of disclosures about sexual misconduct by top-level officers and comes amid a charged debate over whether the military's rules on sexual relations are out of step with the rest of society.
Disclosing Ralston's infraction Wednesday night, Cohen vowed to stick by him as a leading candidate for the military's top post. Noting that in this case the infraction did not affect the functioning of any military unit, he said that he had decided it should not outweigh Ralston's contributions to the nation.
"I do not feel, after weighing his distinguished 32 years of service and given that [the affair] did not occur with someone in the military and does not affect good order and discipline, that it would disqualify him" from being considered, Cohen said.
Cohen also continued to express concern that the torrent of revelations about sexual misconduct within the military would begin to drive seasoned officers from the ranks. In public remarks Tuesday, he had said that "there may come a point" at which the current focus on the issue "goes too far."
According to the Washington Post, Cohen said Wednesday that he wants to "draw a line" against a "frenzy" that has surrounded the revelations.
Pentagon officials said there is widening dismay that in many of the cases the charges were dredged up by anonymous tipsters who understand that in the current climate such infractions can quickly end careers.
Despite such concerns, Cohen, who took up the Ralston matter with President Clinton earlier Wednesday, seemed to leave himself room to accept another candidate for the joint chiefs job should resistance to the general surface at the White House or among members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which must vote on the choice before it goes to the full Senate.
Only last week, Pentagon officials were saying that Ralston's selection was a "done deal" that only awaited Clinton's blessing. But one senior Pentagon official acknowledged Wednesday night that winning Senate approval for him now "is going to be tough."
Indeed, the latest development leaves Cohen in a difficult position. It comes as he has been calling for the military to stand fast in its rules against adultery, which emerged as a public issue in the recent case of Kelly Flinn, the Air Force's first female B-52 pilot. She was allowed to resign with a general discharge rather than face a court-martial on charges stemming mainly from an adulterous affair that she had lied about.
Cohen earlier this week argued that Army Maj. Gen. John E. Longhouser, the commanding officer of the Aberdeen, Md., training base that is the site of recent sexual misconduct court-martials involving drill sergeants and their female trainees, made the right decision in announcing his retirement following his acknowledgement that he had had an adulterous affair during a separation from his wife.
Pentagon officials said that Cohen distinguishes between Ralston's adultery and Longhouser's. While Longhouser had a role in handling criminal cases lodged against the drill instructors, Ralston's adultery "was not prejudicial to good order or discipline," a Pentagon official said.
Still, Cohen was unhappy that Ralston did not disclose his affair earlier in the deliberative process for the joint chiefs job, officials said.
And a Senate source said that Cohen's different reactions to the two cases "would seem on its face to be inconsistent. Cohen's going to have to explain."
Senate sources said that, if Cohen continues to push Ralston as his choice for the joint chiefs job, the Senate Armed Services panel will face a difficult decision. While some influential senators--including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.)--have been arguing for a loosening of military rules on sexual conduct, several have supported Cohen's recent call for the enforcement of high standards. And "even in 1997 no one really wants to be seen as too easy on adultery," a committee staff member said.
Ralston's affair took place while he was separated from his wife, Linda, and living in the Washington area. Later, the two reconciled but in 1988 they divorced. Ralston is now remarried.
The Washington Post reported that, according to divorce records, Linda Ralston contended that her husband had reneged on a promise to end his affair as a condition of reconciliation. She contended that the affair was the reason she sought a divorce, and that Ralston had sought to keep it out of court records to protect his career.
But the Post said that Ralston, traveling in Kazakstan, categorically denied Wednesday night through a senior Cohen aide that the affair continued during the period he had reconciled with his first wife.
Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, the current head of the joint chiefs who is scheduled to retire this fall, issued a strong statement supporting Ralston's candidacy. "I remain firm in my belief that he would make a fine chairman," said Shalikashvili, who had recommended Ralston.