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The Nation

Decision on Army Secretary on Hold as Assault Inquiry Continues

Senate panel stalls the nomination of James Roche pending the results of a probe into sexual abuse at the Air Force Academy.

October 01, 2003|John Hendren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The nomination of Air Force Secretary James Roche to become secretary of the Army has been stalled pending further investigation into the sexual assault scandal at the Air Force Academy, senators said Tuesday.

Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said he had notified the White House that the Senate would not consider Roche's nomination until separate investigations by the Department of Defense and the Air Force are completed in December.

Having failed in the past to grill nominees for the top civilian job in the Air Force about allegations of sexual abuse, Warner told Roche that his committee would take no chances on approving the nomination until all questions had been answered.

"This committee, frankly, got burned one time, and we're not going to get burned again," Warner said.

Within the Pentagon, Roche is regarded as having reacted decisively to a scandal in which female cadets reported a culture that provided only light punishment for sexual assault and imposed a code of silence around knowledge of the events. However, he faced aggressive questioning Tuesday by senators who argued that the Air Force has done too little. Members of an independent panel told the Senate committee last week that Air Force leaders, both in Washington and at the academy, ignored numerous warning signs.

"I don't know why it didn't get to me," Roche said of the scandal.

Nevertheless, he added, "the young woman cadet is safe tonight. All the things we can think of to aid in her protection are in place."

Roche's appearance before the committee came amid intensified congressional criticism of the Pentagon's reconstruction of postwar Iraq and questioning of President Bush's request for an additional $87 billion for that project and to prosecute ongoing military campaigns there and in Afghanistan.

Roche and other officials testified Tuesday on Capitol Hill that changes had been made at the academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., to ensure cadets' safety. Defense officials and industry insiders insisted that once the questions are answered, Roche's nomination will pass.

"There are important issues that need to be worked through, but I have no doubt that when they are ... his nomination will go through," Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita said.

Roche, a Ferrari-driving former executive at defense contractor Northrop Grumman, is known as a turnaround artist for ailing programs. He is said by colleagues and defense officials to have considered returning to a lucrative defense industry job.

He told lawmakers he had not sought the Army post but agreed to accept it because Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had asked for his help in transforming the Army, the service Rumsfeld believes is in greatest need of a revamp.

A Navy veteran, Roche became secretary of the Air Force in June 2001, well after many of the alleged assaults occurred. But Warner noted that the attacks continued after Roche took office, erupting into a full-fledged scandal last February.

"The reason that Roche is being considered for confirmation at all is because he did so well at his first job as secretary of the Air Force. That made him the obvious choice to take over the Army, which was perceived by the administration as being a bigger challenge," said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based public policy group.

"The response at the Air Force Academy was that Roche was treating them too harshly and everybody shouldn't be painted with the same brush. Now apparently Roche is being told he wasn't hard enough. It seems like he can't win."

Air Force general counsel Mary L. Walker denied an accusation by the investigative panel, headed by former Rep. Tillie K. Fowler of Florida, that she had tried to cover for Roche and others by focusing on actions by academy leaders and not officials in Washington, including Roche and Gen. John P. Jumper, the Air Force chief of staff.

"It's absolutely false and it's based on no evidence, and I was shocked when I heard it," Walker said.

Hotly criticized for concluding that assaults were not a systemic problem at the academy, Walker said she might have changed her mind had she known of a 1996 memo from the Air Force surgeon general outlining a series of sexual assaults at the institution.

Warner complained that senators did not see that memo when they considered a promotion in 2000 for Gen. John D. Hopper, the commandant of cadets at the school in 1996. An inspector general's probe found no basis for complaints that Hopper had ignored one case of abuse.

Some of the toughest questioning came from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who criticized Roche's March 23 statement in which he said the academy's problems could not be blamed on the Air Force's current leaders.

"We're in the dog-ate-my-homework and not-on-my-watch defense," said an outraged McCain.

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