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Air Force Is Given a Dressing-Down

Panel reprimands the service for its handling of the sexual assault scandal at its academy.

September 23, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A blue-ribbon panel scolded the Air Force on Monday for its handling of sexual assault allegations at the service's elite officer-training academy over the last decade, charging that some former leaders have not yet been held accountable for a climate of intimidation that prevailed on campus against many female cadets.

The expert panel, created by an act of Congress after the scandal at the Air Force Academy in Colorado emerged publicly this year, gave the most complete independent assessment to date of the history of more than 140 allegations and the service's response to them. In a key finding, the panel wrote that the Air Force has not yet acknowledged the scope of the problem.

Taking note of an internal Air Force review of the matter in June that found "no systemic acceptance of sexual assault at the academy [or] institutional avoidance of responsibility," the panel wrote that "it cannot agree with that conclusion, given the substantial amount of information about the sexual assaults and the academy's institutional culture that was available to leaders at the academy, Air Force headquarters and to the office of the Air Force general counsel."

Further, it wrote: "This panel is concerned about the lack of accountability of Air Force leaders in Colorado Springs and in Washington D.C. The Air Force and the academy cannot fully put this unfortunate chapter behind them until they understand and acknowledge the cause."

Lt. Col. Dewey Ford, an Air Force spokesman, said officials would review the report. "We're committed to holding people accountable for any misconduct," he said.

Air Force Secretary James Roche and top Air Force generals have insisted for months that the service is taking the allegations seriously and making an effort to reform the culture at the academy. They announced initial changes in March and have installed new leadership at the Colorado Springs campus.

The review panel was chaired by Tillie K. Fowler, a retired Republican congresswoman from Florida who served on the House Armed Services Committee. Other members were a retired U.S. Army general, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel, a superintendent emeritus of the Virginia Military Institute, a sexual assault victims advocate, and experts from the Rand Corp. and the American Enterprise Institute.

They delivered the report Monday to Congress and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Fowler praised the current leadership of the Air Force, saying in a news conference that it has "got the academy back on track." But she said the Air Force needed a fuller accounting of how 142 sexual assault allegations were lodged from January 1993 through December 2002 without raising alarm.

"Academy and Air Force leaders knew or should have known that this data was an unmistakable warning sign and quite possibly signaled an even larger crisis," the report said.

The panel recommended 21 steps to address the allegations, including longer tours of duty for academy leaders and empowering the academy's Board of Visitors to take a more vigorous oversight role. The panel also recommended that the academy give cadets unrestricted access to private telephones in emergencies and revamp character education instruction.

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