D.C. Council Member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Arlington County Board Member Walter Tejada (D) join the Politics Hour crew in the studio.
Whether they involve sordid stories of adultery and criminal offenses, or more mundane issues of ineptitude, firings within many branches of the military’s officer ranks seem to be on the rise. A recent front-page story involves allegations of at least $10 million in fraud in a case that has — so far — ensnared two Navy CO’s, an NCIS “agent of the year” and an overseas defense contractor. We go behind the headlines and consider the leadership issues at the core of these scandals.
- Craig Whitlock Pentagon and national security reporter, The Washington Post
- Thomas Ricks Fellow, Center for a New American Security; contributing editor and writer of 'The Best Defense' blog, Foreign Policy; author, "The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today"
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, whether or not that irresistible craving you have for certain types of food is addictive or not. But first, stories of questionable moral behavior and poor choices leading to the removal of senior military officers from their posts have become a more common sight in civilian news.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut one recent headline goes well beyond the alcohol-fueled mistakes and sexual indiscretions often behind them. A senior naval officer is alleged to have taken bribes in the form of visits from prostitutes, luxury hotel rooms, and Lady Gaga tickets from a Singapore-based defense contractor alleged to have been overcharging for dockside services where said officer steered U.S. ships.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd all the while, a one-time agent of the year with NCIS was giving the contractor a heads-up whenever the investigator's service started to get wise to the estimated $10 million-plus in fraud that investigators have uncovered thus far, all of which raises a lot of questions about practices in the military and contracting worlds. Here to help us sort through some of them is Craig Whitlock. He is Pentagon and national security reporter for The Washington Post. He joins us in studio. Craig, thank you for joining us.
MR. CRAIG WHITLOCKThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIJoining us by phone from Maine is Tom Ricks. He is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He's also a contributing editor for Foreign Policy magazine where he writes "The Best Defense" blog. He's the author of several books, the latest of which is "The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today." It's recently out in paperback. Tom Ricks, thank you for joining us.
MR. THOMAS RICKSThank you. And congratulations on your 15th year.
NNAMDIThank you very much. Hopefully, I'll be able to last a little longer. Craig Whitlock, before we drill further down into the specifics of this recent case, it seems more and more military firings are getting coverage in civilian papers. Are they growing in number? Or are we just seeing increased interest in -- on the part of civilians?
WHITLOCKWell, I think over the last couple of years, we have seen an increase in the number of generals and admirals being disciplined or charged or fired often for personal misconduct, for sexual indiscretions, for drinking, for a wide variety of things. I -- it's hard to say, over time, whether this is an unusual number. But there has certainly been an increase the past couple of years.
NNAMDIHas there also possibly been an increase in civilian and public interest, really as a result of the great publicity that was surrounding the Petraeus affair, the John Allen story?
WHITLOCKWell, I think that certainly was a peak. I think some of it is the nature of these cases are they're easy for the general public to understand when a general or the former CIA director is, you know, resigns after having an affair with someone. The commander in Afghanistan -- still a little unclear what he did -- but Marine Gen. John Allen was implicated.
WHITLOCKThere were -- he was investigated by the inspector general for exchanging tens of thousands of pages of emails with a woman in Tampa. You know, the public maybe doesn't understand. There's a bit of a disconnect with what the military does these days, but these kind of allegations are things that strike a chord that they can understand. And so I think there is an interest level on that.
NNAMDITom Ricks, you track these firings on your blog. And I wonder what you've noticed in terms of the number of these cases and the circumstances surrounding them in the last year or two.
RICKSI think a couple of things are going on. I think first, as Craig says, there is more attention being paid. I think also standards are changing, and we're seeing a different standard applied to the private behavior of commanders. For example, Gen. Eisenhower in World War II carried on quite openly with his British driver, chauffeur and aide to camp, Kay Summersby. We don't know if they were actually sexually intimate.
RICKSI suspect they probably were. But they certainly hung around in ways that weren't inappropriate, went riding in together every afternoon when they were based in Algeria, went horseback riding and so on. So changing standards is part of it. The interesting thing to me is this recent firing of two Marine generals. We've seen a lot of firings over personal behavior, what the military calls zipper problems or zipper malfunctions.
RICKSWe haven't seen a lot of firings for combat incompetence, for professional failures. And recently, the Marine Corps fired two senior generals. And as far as I can tell, that's the first time that we've seen generals relieved for professional incompetence since the Army fired a general in 1971 near the end of the Vietnam War.
NNAMDIAnd, even though we're seeing more firings these days, you point out that there seems to be firings because of personal shenanigans. Do you think, nevertheless, that there's a growing feeling that, in general, more accountability is needed?
RICKSI think there is. And you're seeing the kind of move towards more accountability. But in the military, there's a lot of cynicism about this. They call it different spanks for different ranks. Col. Paul Yingling wrote about the Iraq War rather famously that a private who loses his rifle is punished more than a general who loses a war nowadays.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join the conversation. Do you think the military is too hard on its leaders when it comes to personal misconduct or not tough enough? 800-433-8850. Craig Whitlock, your front page that ran in Sunday's edition of the Post about the scandal unfolding in the Navy stands out for a number of reasons. One is the officer who served as commander of the USS Mustin embroiled in this scandal. The Navy seemed to have found in him a poster boy of sorts. What was his backstory?
WHITLOCKWell, it is a fascinating story, Kojo. Cmdr. Michael Misiewicz was the commander of the USS Mustin when it went to Cambodia in late 2010. What was striking is that, as a child, he was a Cambodian native. He grew up there in the 60s, early 70s, was adopted during the time of considerable turbulence there by a U.S. embassy employee, taken to the United States, and much of his family perished in the Cambodian killing fields in the genocide there under the Khmer Rouge.
WHITLOCKSo, you know, it is an all-American story in a sense, that he grew up in the U.S. He went to the Naval Academy. He was a rising star in the Navy, commander of a destroyer, went back to Cambodia, received a sort of hero's welcome there, but unbeknownst to the public at the time, according to federal investigators, he was starting a relationship -- an improper relationship with a major naval defense contractor in Asia who provided all sorts of supplies and ship services any time a Navy ship pulled into port in the Western Pacific.
WHITLOCKAnd that went on to the point where, you know, he's charged with corruption, for accepting bribes in the form of prostitutes, money, and, as you mentioned, even Lady Gaga tickets to a concert in Thailand. So, you know, sort of a tragic downfall after all that.
NNAMDIAnd a couple of other officers implicated in this.
WHITLOCKThat's right. Since then, a couple weeks after the commander was charged and arrested, another Navy captain in charge of a ship out in Tokyo was removed, was relieved, was fired. He has not been charged criminally in the case, but the Navy, it says the reason he was removed from command is that he is under investigation as well.
WHITLOCKAnd the court papers do make mention of other unidentified Navy officers who either went with the commander to visit prostitutes or received tickets or other favors from this defense contractor. So I wouldn't be surprised if we see other folks charged in this case.
NNAMDIAnd an NCIS agent, former agent of the year allegedly tipping off this contractor about investigations underway, going back to 2010.
WHITLOCKYeah. It's a really startling charge in that part as well that the defense contractor, this company called Glenn Defense Marine Asia somehow forged a very close relationship to a senior NCIS agent. And he was regularly tipping them off as to the status of the investigations and in constant contact with him, at least according to federal charges against him.
NNAMDITom Ricks, you recently wrote that bribery and prostitution are kind of the ham and eggs of crime. Why do these two seem to go hand in hand? And does anything stand out as especially remarkable or unusual about this particular story to you?
RICKSWell, I said they're like ham and eggs just because I think the two things that people really -- or seem susceptible to are offers of sex and money. Of course, in Washington, offers of power are also made, but apparently that's not illegal. That's just the way Washington works. This case does strike me as unusual. It makes me wonder about morale among officers.
RICKSWhy would a guy who had such a stirring story and such a future throw it all away? And it made me wonder whether people really don't value their rank and positions as much now that our wars are kind of over and they're kind of looking at a dull rest of their career. There was a lot of excitement in the military in recent years.
RICKSAnd people, I think, in some ways become addicted to the adrenaline. They miss the excitement of combat. When I saw Craig's story about the NCIS investigator, it reminded me of an old saying among police reporters. Always save the photograph of the cop of the month or the cop of the year because he's the guy who gets charged a year later. And the reason is these are guys who tend to push boundaries, push limits. Sometimes they push them in good ways, and they become cop of the year. Sometimes they push them in bad ways, and they step over a legal line.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join the conversation. Craig, the military has its own justice system. But it's my understanding that this case is being handled by federal prosecutors. Is that correct? And if so, why?
WHITLOCKIt is -- that is correct. And this is what makes this case especially unusual is that you have a Navy commander and NCIS agent who are being charged in the federal courts. The investigation's being carried out by NCIS agents, also defense criminal investigative service. There's a number of other federal agencies involved in this. But, you know, this is not going to -- at the moment anyway -- the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the military justice system.
WHITLOCKIt doesn't mean that they might not be -- face discipline under that. But, you know, this is a very serious criminal case in the civilian courts. And to demonstrate the unusual nature of that, there's one other case going on now in the Army, a one-starred general who faces criminal charges in the military system of sexual assault and other sexual-related misconduct, for carrying on an affair, and assaulting allegedly a junior female officer on his staff.
WHITLOCKThis is only the third time an Army general has faced criminal charges in the military system in court-martial since 1952. So these criminal cases, as opposed to just personal misconduct and discipline, the criminal cases are exceedingly rare for military officers at this level.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Marian in Washington, D.C. Marian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARIANYes. Hi, Kojo. Yeah, I actually -- the last point that was made sort of gets to what I was thinking about. You all, as all men, were discussing sexual shenanigans and personal indiscretions, but sexual assault, sexual harassment, and, in the case of LaVena Johnson in Iraq in 2005 who was 19 years old, torture and murder. So it's not just about consensual relationships on the side. Thanks.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. You know, Tom Ricks, stories like this often raise questions about how military leaders are trained. In the past, you've argued for closing the U.S. military academies and diverting their funding to ROTC scholarships instead. Earlier this week, word came that the ROTC is cutting back some programs and boosting others. How does the training that officers receive and the culture of the military, beginning at that entry point in the service, shape their leadership skills and, I guess, their moral codes?
RICKSSometimes not well. I have a real problem with some of the events at West Point and the attitudes produced there. Last year there was a very quiet scandal on their rugby team, which is the male rugby team has now been suspended for, I think, at least a year from organizing or playing because of the way women were discussed and treated by the team. So I do think the ROTC programs, Reserve Officer Training at Civilian universities, are not only often better in the quality of the officer they produce, they are much, much cheaper.
RICKSWe have a military that for the last 10 years is used to living on blank checks. And that has to end. And one thing they need to start questioning is inordinately expensive ways of producing officers. And the military academies are extraordinarily expensive compared to ROTC or officer candidate schools. So that needs to be reconsidered. Another issue, though, on general officers is we're seeing a lot of accountability for younger officers, for captains of Navy ships and so on, but generals and admirals seem to have been -- until recently -- off limits.
RICKSAnd I think we're seeing pressure inside the military to hold those groups equally accountable or even more because they should, they're the leaders. They're the stewards of the profession. I was really struck -- I think it was yesterday -- 27 former Marine and Navy JAGs, military lawyers, sent a letter to Congress complaining about the leadership of the current Marine Corps, saying that they were not behaving properly and they're handling the military justice issues. I cannot remember a letter like that ever being sent before by Marine lawyers.
NNAMDIBut, Craig, you note that there's been some movement toward addressing this issue wholesale before. Are we likely to see any changes or attempts to do so again on the horizon?
WHITLOCKI think there have been some lukewarm attempts by the Pentagon to look into this, figure out if it's a problem. After the case involving General Petraeus and General Allen, then Sec. of Defense Leon Panetta announced a review of ethics and training and behavior of senior officers. He said he was very concerned about it.
WHITLOCKThe Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, oversaw this review and looked into it and sort of nibbled around the edges, saying yes, we maybe need to do something about these generals and admirals. Their staffs are too big. Maybe they're insolated a little big, but he did not find any sort of pattern or underlying concerns about personal conduct of these very senior officers.
WHITLOCKI think there is, perhaps, a reluctance in many cases for generals and admirals to pass judgment on their peers in a negative way. Tom has written about how Gen. George Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff during World War II was ruthless in this regard. He wouldn't hesitate to discipline his friends who are generals if they needed to be for incompetence.
WHITLOCKAnd I think people are reluctant to do that today. The two Marine's generals who were fired at the end of September for failing to secure a base in southern Afghanistan, even in that case it was very unusual, as Tom pointed out, but the commandant of the Marine Corps said he agonized over this decision because these were his friends. And it took a long time before he was able to reach that decision, and only after some publicity about the failings in that case.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. Here now is Tom, in Woodbridge, Va. Tom, your turn.
TOMHi, Kojo. I think that holding the generals responsible for what happened in Afghanistan was partially influenced or a reaction to the lack of accountability by the State Department for Benghazi.
NNAMDITo which you say what, Tom Ricks?
RICKSThat's the first time I've ever heard that theory.
NNAMDII haven't heard that theory before myself. Why do you think so, Tom?
TOMMarine Corps was not happy with what happened in Benghazi, that they felt that they should have been called, that they could have provided a lot of assistance there. And then it's kind of embarrassing to not have anybody held accountable for something that was kind of predictable, that something could have happened there at that consulate, and then when security was not provided. No one was held responsible. And I think, at least maybe subconsciously, the generals looked at what happened in Afghanistan and said, well, somebody's got to be held responsible here. We're not going to be like the State Department.
NNAMDIOkay, Tom. Thank you very much for sharing that with us. Any thoughts on that, Craig Whitlock?
WHITLOCKWell, I don't know. That's an interesting theory. I haven't seen any evidence to support it. I think, just from covering the military, I think, those are two pretty separate issues and that I'd be surprised if the Navy, or excuse me, The Marine Corps felt under pressure to can a couple of generals in Afghanistan for something that happened in Libya.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Craig Whitlock, thank you for joining us.
WHITLOCKThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDICraig Whitlock is a Pentagon and nation security reporter for the Washington Post. Tom Ricks, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDITom is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a contributing editor for Foreign Policy Magazine, and author of several books, the latest of which is "The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today." We're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll look at whether or not that irresistible craving, that urge you have for certain types of food is addictive. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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