WASHINGTON — Responding to a string of recent scandals that have tarnished the military, the Pentagon’s top two leaders, Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, served notice on Thursday that they would strictly enforce ethical standards for their most senior officers.
“The fundamental mission of the Department of Defense is to protect the nation,” Panetta said in a memo to Dempsey ordering a review of ethics training for generals and admirals. “Any behavior that negatively impacts our ability to perform that mission is unacceptable.”
Dempsey, for his part, wrote an unusual letter to every four-star officer in the armed services — about 50 admirals and generals — expressing concern over recent cases of unprofessional conduct.
“We, as the senior leaders of the military, should fundamentally take charge of our own profession, and overcome the challenges that have been posed to us,” Dempsey said in a telephone interview on Thursday as he was returning from official travels in Asia. “If we really are a profession — a group of men and women who are committed to living an uncommon life with extraordinary responsibility and high standards — we should want to figure it out before someone else figures it out for us.”
Pentagon officials said Panetta was not reacting to pressure from the White House, and insisted that the defense secretary had planned the review of ethics programs even before David H. Petraeus, the celebrated retired general, resigned as director of the Central Intelligence Agency because of an extramarital affair.
Since then, Gen. John R. Allen, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, has also come under investigation for potentially questionable emails exchanged with Jill Kelley, a Tampa, Fla., woman active in local military circles. Associates of Allen say the emails are innocuous.
Panetta, who was in Bangkok on Thursday to sign a new defense cooperation agreement with the Thai government, said at a news conference that there was no evidence so far that more military officers might get drawn into the same scandal as Petraeus and Allen. Nonetheless, he spoke cautiously.
“I am not aware of any others that could be involved in this issue at the present time,” Panetta said. “Obviously as this matter continues to be investigated both on Capitol Hill and by the inspector general I’m sure we’ll have to wait and see what additional factors are brought to our attention.”
Panetta directed the military to determine if current ethical training programs for senior officers were adequate, and to report back to him in time to send an interim assessment to President Barack Obama by Dec. 1. In his memo to Dempsey, Panetta said that the Defense Department would continue to hold officers accountable for violations of its standards and rules and that he expected sound judgment as well. “An action may be legally permissible but neither advisable nor wise.”