WASHINGTON — The Pentagon was warned repeatedly going back a decade that it was accepting military recruits with criminal histories and was too lenient with those already in uniform who exhibited violent or other troubling behavior.
Six studies prepared over 10 years by an outside expert at the Pentagon's request found that too little was being done to discipline lawbreakers in uniform or even identify problem recruits.
A 1998 study estimated that one-third of military recruits had arrest records. A 1995 report found that one out of four Army career enlisted personnel had committed one or more criminal offenses while on active duty. Yet many were allowed to reenlist or received promotions. Some received good-conduct medals or held top secret security clearances, the research found.
The 1995 study cited the case of one soldier who was promoted to sergeant despite a record of behavior that included multiple assaults, drunk and disorderly conduct, property destruction and obstruction of justice.
As recently as last year, only a month before some of the worst abuses of Iraqi detainees occurred at Abu Ghraib prison, one of the reports said some troops were in positions "where destructive acts could have the most serious consequences."
"An immediate problem faced by Defense is that there are military personnel with pre-service and in-service records that clearly establish a pattern of substandard behavior," the 2003 report said.
"These individuals constitute a high-risk group for destructive behavior and need to be identified."
The September 2003 study, titled "Reducing the Threat of Destructive Behavior by Military Personnel" and released to The Times with the Pentagon's permission, was written by Eli S. Flyer, a former senior analyst at the Defense Department and a longtime Pentagon consultant.
It examined recruiting of active-duty troops and misconduct by uniformed personnel once they entered the armed forces. Military reservists undergo the same screening process as active-duty troops, Flyer said.
Although the Pentagon adopted some new procedures, they were not adequate, Flyer's most recent report said. The military services have resisted improving screening procedures because that "would reduce applicant supply," the 2003 report said, alluding to problems some services have had in recent years meeting recruitment goals.
"Critically important, development of applicant screening procedures to identify individuals with behavior disorders has lagged, contributing to suitability problems and destructive acts occurring later during active duty," the report said.
Flyer's most recent study said steps needed to be taken to reduce the "wide range of destructive acts committed by military personnel," including sabotage, serial murder and rape.
The Army recently announced that it had opened investigations into at least 91 cases of possible misconduct by U.S. military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to violent crimes committed against detainees, the charges include assaults and thefts committed against civilians.
"One would hope Defense is doing a thorough investigation of their backgrounds," Flyer said.
Flyer said Bill Carr, the Pentagon's acting deputy undersecretary for military personnel policy, requested last September's report. Carr was not available for an interview.
Curtis Gilroy, who oversees military recruiting as director of the Pentagon's office of accession policy, said the screening process for recruits was "pretty good" but acknowledged some shortcomings.
It is hard to "pick out all the bad apples," Gilroy said, "but we are striving to improve the system and are doing so -- from recruiters to the military entrance processing stations to the initial training sites. We are taking screening very seriously and will be more vigilant at all steps of the recruiting and accession process."
One measure of the overall problem is provided by the record of a special Defense Department screening program called the Personnel Reliability Program, or PRP, which is designed to ensure that only persons of sound character were assigned to duty involving nuclear weapons. Between 1987 and 1990, three individuals approved by the PRP committed murders while on active duty.
In a 1986 case, the Navy gave a PRP clearance to a man known to be a suspect in an unsolved murder. Three years later, when the man was a fire control technician on a nuclear submarine, he was charged in the murder of an elderly couple while off duty. He was later convicted.
In an interview, Flyer said it was too early to know if the problems he found could have contributed to the situation at Abu Ghraib or to other misconduct cases that came to light in Iraq and Afghanistan, although at least two cases involved veterans with checkered backgrounds.
Most of the names of those being investigated have not been released, but in at least two high-profile cases men who are charged with committing crimes had entered the military despite previous problems.