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Pentagon Seeks Support For Joint Chiefs' Candidate

By Paul Richter
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

The Pentagon Thursday sought support for Defense Secretary William S. Cohen's choice to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff - a general officer who has admitted committing adultery - but the battle quickly widened into an effort to convince the public that the military was not applying a double-standard on sexual infractions.

One day after the Pentagon's disclosure that Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston conducted an adulterous affair more than a decade ago, officials sought to explain how in different circumstances such relationships could put some service members in jail and others in retirement while not eliminating one - Ralston - from candidacy for the armed forces' most coveted post.

"I am satisfied Gen. Ralston's conduct was neither prejudicial to good order and discipline nor discrediting to the armed forces," Cohen said in a statement. He added that Ralston remains "a leading candidate" for the joint chiefs post.

Still, Cohen said that he will not make his final recommendation for the job until next week at the earliest, meaning that the Clinton administration and Congress will have time to gauge public reaction to disclosure of Ralston's affair.

Congressional reaction initially was cautious, with a smattering of lawmakers standing behind Ralston's candidacy. But privately, some on Capitol Hill predicted that Clinton will not sign off on a candidate who will keep adultery in the headlines.

"This candidacy will quietly breathe its last gasp and somebody else will fill the job," one senior congressional aide said.

The arguments sparked by the Ralston case, quickly joined by some members of Congress, marked a further intensification of the debate over the military's rules for sexual misconduct that has gathered force for months. And as Pentagon officials acknowledged that the military has failed so far to explain why it needs rules on adultery in its code of conduct, Cohen signaled that he intends a broader review of whether the rules are properly conceived and carried out.

Kenneth H. Bacon, chief Pentagon spokesman, acknowledged at a news conference that a recent wave of widely reported cases has raised the issue of whether the system of enforcing sexual rules has been knocked "out of balance."

"The secretary realizes that has to be addressed. He's toiling with that question now," said Bacon. Over the next few months, he said, Cohen will look over the rules and how they are implemented by commanding officers in the field.

"This may be a problem of training or of enforcement or of explanation" to troops and the civilian world, Bacon said.

Ralston, 53, now vice chairman of the joint chiefs, had an affair with a CIA employee from August 1983 to June 1984 while the two were students at National War College near Washington and when Ralston was separated from his wife at the time.

Defense officials Thursday laid out their case that the affair was different from the infractions that in recent weeks have ended the career of 1st Lt. Kelly Flinn, a B-52 pilot; forced the retirement of Gen. John Longhouser, commander of the Army's Aberdeen Ordnance Center and School, and brought a suspension of duties for a Navy admiral and an Army general.

The military code provides that an adulterous affair is only against the rules if the conduct has the effect of harming "good order and discipline," officials said. And the harm to the military organization must not be in "some indirect or remote sense," Bacon said, quoting the military guide to courts-martial.

Disputing charges that the Pentagon is using a double standard in the Ralston case, Bacon said: "The issue is balance. The issue is doing the right thing. We are not voyeurs."

Officials noted that Ralston was not in charge of troops when his affair occurred.

The officials also distinguished between Ralston's case and that of Longhouser's by pointing out that the Aberdeen commander's relationship was with a defense department employee, meaning they they were both part of the same larger organization.

Also complicating Longhouser's situation, they said, was that as commanding officer, he was directly responsible for overseeing the justice meted out to the 12 drill instructors accused of sexual misconduct at the Aberdeen base.

Divorce court filings in 1988 by Ralston's ex-wife, Linda, alleged that while Ralston began his affair when the couple were separated, he subsequently violated their reconciliation by resuming the affair. Pentagon officials disputed that Ralston had resumed his affair while he was married, saying that he began it again only after his divorce was final.

Bacon also defended Ralston against charges that he was guilty of hypocrisy in forcing the 1995 retirement, at reduced rank, of Lt. Gen. Thomas Griffith, former head of the 11th Air Force, after an adulterous affair.

Griffiths' infractions were far more serious because they were carried on over a longer time while he was a commanding officer and was living with his wife. They were also carried on in sight of subordinates, and thus risked disruption.

Ralston's case "is not the Flinn case - or the Longhouser case - or the Griffith case," said Bacon. The circumstances were "perfectly human, and understandable, and not particularly troubling."

A number of lawmakers supported Cohen's decision to continue Ralston's candidacy. On the Senate Armed Services Committee, which must confirm any nomination before it is voted on by the full Senate, support came from Sen. John Warner, R-Va., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.