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Pentagon Blasts Tailhook Probe, Two Admirals Resign

By Melissa Healy
Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON

The Navy conducted a poorly coordinated, half-hearted investigation into sexual assault allegations stemming from the 1991 Tailhook convention, and did so under the direction of an admiral who apparently doubted that women belonged in the military, Pentagon investigators said Thursday in their first major report on the scandal.

The report, released at a press conference by Acting Navy Secretary Sean O'Keefe, criticized three naval officers and the Navy's second-highest ranking civilian for their roles overseeing an investigation hobbled by bad planning, a narrow focus on lower-level officers and an overweening concern for the Navy's reputation.

As naval investigators turned up evidence of infractions other than sexual assault, the officials managing the effort failed to widen their probe, the Department of Defense's Inspector General, Derek J. Vander Schaaf, concluded. And despite continued prodding from colleagues, the admiral in charge of the Naval Investigative Service refused to allow interviews of senior officers, even after it became clear some had witnessed improper acts and failed to intervene.

As expected, O'Keefe accepted the resignations of two admirals cited in the report, Rear Adm. Duvall M. Williams, Jr. and Rear Adm. John E. Gordon. A third admiral, Rear Adm. George W. Davis VI, came in for less stringent criticism and has been reassigned from his position as Naval inspector general.

But in a surprise move, O'Keefe said that he continues to have "complete confidence" in Navy Under Secretary J. Daniel Howard, and has decided to keep him on as the Navy's second-in-command, despite the inspector general's finding that Howard failed completely to take control of the investigation.

O'Keefe also announced the reorganization of the Navy's investigative services to streamline their mission and put them under closer supervision from top civilian authority.

Release of the findings Thursday set the stage for the next turn in the Tailhook saga -- a report that will reconstruct details of what happened last September at the infamous Las Vegas convention, and who did what.

While that report is certain to include more sensational details, the one issued Thursday in many ways provides more insight into the atmosphere and attitudes many believe led to the incidents at Tailhook.

Williams, commander of the naval investigative service and the officer who most directly oversaw the investigation, repeatedly expressed desire to end the probe and on one occasion, told a Navy civilian that he did not believe women belong in military service, according to the report.

On another occasion, the report said, Williams told assistant Secretary of the Navy Barbara S. Pope words to the effect that "a lot of female Navy pilots are go-go dancers, topless dancers or hookers."

Speaking to a junior naval investigator, Williams at one point observed that a female officer who had come forward with complaints had used profane language in describing her alleged assault. "Any women who would use the F-word on a regular basis would welcome this type of activity," the female investigator quoted Williams as saying.

Davis, the naval inspector general whose task was to investigate non-criminal aspects of the scandal, told Department of Defense investigators that he did not interview senior officials who attended the convention, or identify individuals for disciplinary action, because such actions would be perceived as a "witch hunt."

Williams' comments, Vander Schaaf concluded, "demonstrated an attitude that should have caused an examination of his suitability to conduct the investigation." Vander Schaaf indicated Davis was willing to excuse officers' tolerance for sexual misconduct by arguing that Navy culture had been indulgent toward such behavior in the past.

"While it is easy to be sympathetic to the attitude ... it must ultimately be rejected," the report said. "The time for attributing misconduct of that nature to a `cultural problem' had long since passed."

In introducing the report, O'Keefe declared tolerance for such attitudes a thing of the past.

"We get it," O'Keefe said. "We know that the larger issue is a cultural problem which has allowed demeaning behavior and attitudes towards women to exist within the Navy Department. Our senior leadership is totally committed to confronting this problem and demonstrating that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. Those who don't get the message will be driven from our ranks."

At the same time, O'Keefe defended the Navy's progress in addressing sexual harassment problems and its ability to investigate future complaints of sexual impropriety in its ranks. Several lawmakers have proposed stripping the Navy and the other armed services of their role in probing sexual molestation cases.

Williams and Gordon both disputed the report. Williams called it "fundamentally unfair that I could be tried, convicted and sentenced ... without due process in a report containing so many inaccuracies and distortions."

Gordon, who was out of the country at the time those reports were completed, told The Los Angeles Times on Thursday, the Pentagon investigation "is flawed and factually incorrect. In the coming days, I will do everything I can to set the record straight."