Best known as "Bunk" from the TV series "The Wire," Wendell Pierce is now working to rebuild his old neighborhood, Pontchartrain Park, one of New Orleans' first middle-class African American communities.
Earlier this week, the Navy disclosed the suspension of 30 sailors suspected of cheating on exams qualifying them to operate nuclear reactors. This follows investigations into Naval officers accused of trading secrets for sex and money, 92 suspensions tied to cheating on nuclear exams in the Air Force and a recruiting scandal in the National Guard, among others. We explore how the Pentagon is responding to what appears to be a systemic problem, and how these headline-grabbing scandals will affect civilian confidence in the military.
- Craig Whitlock Pentagon and national security reporter, The Washington Post
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, the Obama administration pledged $7 billion to help build the power grid in Africa. We look at what it means for U.S. companies looking to invest on the continent. But, first, earlier this week the Navy revealed that it had suspended 30 sailors suspected of cheating on exams qualifying them to operate nuclear reactors.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThis is the latest in a string of scandals involving the military, including a similar test-cheating scandal in the Air Force, Naval officers accused of trading secrets for sex, and the National Guard recruitment scandal. Joining us to discuss what the Pentagon is doing about bad behavior is Craig Whitlock. He is the Pentagon and national security reporter for The Washington Post. Craig, thank you for joining us.
MR. CRAIG WHITLOCKThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDITell us about this latest cheating scandal. Who was involved? How serious was it?
WHITLOCKThere are about 30 enlisted senior sailors down at the Navy's nuclear propulsion school in Charleston, South Carolina. And on Monday, another sailor tipped off his commander saying that answer keys were being passed around for important tests that they have to take so that they can teach other sailors how to operate nuclear reactors. These aren't nuclear weapons, but the reactors that the Navy uses to give power to many of their ships and submarines. So it's a very important test and a very sensitive job.
NNAMDIHow many soldiers, how many sailors involved?
WHITLOCKThe Navy is still investigating. They said they just found out about this on Monday. But at first they say about 30 enlisted sailors have been implicated. And these are instructors who teach other sailors how to operate nuclear reactors safely.
NNAMDIWhat's more troubling for many of us is that this seems to be just another in a string of scandals unfolding across the services. Remind us what else has been happening.
WHITLOCKWell, to be honest, it's hard to remember them all, there have been so many recently. As you mentioned earlier, the Air Force has had its own string of scandals with its nuclear force, with cheating for officers who sit in the silos in case they are needed to launch nuclear weapons. We've had a commander in the Air Force, a general, who went on a drinking binge in Moscow and he was relieved of command for that. We had a three-star Navy admiral in charge of nuclear weapons who is under criminal investigation for gambling -- for passing counterfeit gambling chips.
WHITLOCKThe Navy's had a bribery and sex scandal. The Army National Guard has had a recruiting scandal with hundreds of soldiers falsely claiming bonuses for recruiting people. So, you know, these cases keep happening. And the Pentagon's struggling for answers.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, that's Craig Whitlock. He's the Pentagon and national security reporter for The Washington Post. He joins us in studio to talk about scandals in the military. If you'd like to join the conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Are you concerned about the latest revelations involving cheating by those operating nuclear reactors in the military? 800-433-8850. You can send email to Kojo@WAMU.org. Or send us a tweet at KojoShow. Craig, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered reviews of personnel who handle nuclear weapons.
NNAMDIShould we be concerned about safety when it comes to who's handling our nuclear arsenal?
WHITLOCKWell, that's a really, really sensitive area, as you might expect. And we've seen a number of commanders come out at the Pentagon to assure the public that nuclear weapons are in safe hands. There are so many checks and balances involved that, you know, these systems are not compromised. That said, you know, these scandals that, whether it's cheating or other malfeasance involving anyone in the nuclear force is always a subject of concern. There's another aspect to this Air Force cheating scandal.
WHITLOCKThe reason the Air Force found out about it is they were investigating illegal drug use among some nuclear officers. Well, it doesn't take too much to conger up some pretty scary scenarios when you have officers in charge of nuclear-armed missiles who are using drugs. The Air Force hasn't said too much about the results of that investigation but, you know, that's pretty serious.
NNAMDITop military officials seem to be describing these scandals as lapses in ethics. But are we talking about maybe a much bigger systemic issue across the military?
WHITLOCKWell, what's striking is yesterday the Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby came out and told reporters that Defense Secretary Hagel is very concerned about this. And he was very frank. He admitted they don't know the scope of these problems. They are worried that this is a systemic problem. You know, of course, most military people are upstanding, honorable. They, you know, they serve their country with distinction, even heroism. But there is a significant minority here that are causing a lot of headaches for the military.
WHITLOCKAnd what's striking, again, is that even the defense secretary says he doesn't know how far the problem goes and he's concerned about it. But they also seem a little bit at a loss as to how to get to the bottom of it.
NNAMDIDo they also seem at a loss about why this is happening?
WHITLOCKI think so. I think they are scratching their heads a bit here. One thing that some commanders have wondered is whether, after 12 years of war, the force is strained. Or maybe during those 12 years, they were turning a blind eye to ethical questions -- that they were more concerned about whether commanders were competent, were good military commanders in terms of tactics and leading the troops. But they didn't pay enough attention to ethics or personal behavior. And now that the wars have drawn down or are closing out in Afghanistan, that some of these problems are coming out.
NNAMDIAre people suggesting that the military may have lowered its standards in terms of recruitment in order to fill the needs for those 12 years of war?
WHITLOCKI don't think that has come up. The recruiting for the military, they've had very good luck these last several years, particularly during the economic downturn. They have not had problems meeting their goals. They did have some challenges during the height of the Iraq War, when understandably there wasn't quite the demand to sign up to go fight when people knew they were going to go to that war. But, really, the last several years they've had -- they've done very well in meeting their recruiting goals and most of the services are now downsizing a bit.
WHITLOCKSo I don't think that's the problem. The, you know, and again most all of these people serve honorably, serve well. But, you know, the question is, why aren't they finding out about these ethical problems sooner? Why are they hard to uncover? Why do they keep happening in a profession that really does take integrity and honor very, very seriously?
NNAMDI800-433-8850. What's your opinion of the integrity of those in the military? Has that opinion changed since the revelations of these scandals? 800-433-8850. Craig, public opinion generally sees the military as strong on ethics. Are these headlines having an adverse affect on the military's reputation?
WHITLOCKWell, we'll see. I know the military is worried about that. You talk to any number of commanders, officers especially, who say, you know, they worry they have a trust problem with the American people or they're worried that one could be developing. As you rightly point out, public opinion surveys have always shown that the American public holds the military in very high esteem. They have a great deal of trust in them for very good reasons. But it's a two-way street and the military has to keep the public trust.
WHITLOCKAnd when they keep having case after case of generals or admirals or others behaving badly and, you know, these are not hard things to, you know, these aren't close calls, some of the behavior. You know, they're clearly things that are ethically way out of bounds. And officers are worried that -- is this going to, not fracture, but damage their standing in the public eye?
NNAMDIA lot of people will relate this to the military's handling of what's been described as an epidemic of sexual assault. We got a tweet from Liz who says, "What about the ongoing scandal of sexual assault in the military?" People will wonder if the behavior of the command structure tells us anything in that situation.
WHITLOCKWell, that's another very, very important issue that the military has been grappling with: sexual assault in the ranks. And, again, it gets to trust and it gets to personal conduct. And not only the fact that so many people in the military have been victims of sexual assault but the big question that Congress has been grappling with as well as the Pentagon is has the military done a good job of handling those cases -- of investigating them? Can commanders be trusted to not just prevent these things from happening but deterring and prosecuting people who are responsible?
WHITLOCKAnd, you know, that's a good question. It's hard to link that with -- directly to officers who behave unethically, but, you know it does -- I think in the public mind, people wonder: Are these people equipped? Do they have the right integrity to handle these cases?
NNAMDIThat seems to be the case in the mind of one member of the public: Chris in Silver Spring, Maryland. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead please.
CHRISTogo, good afternoon. I mean, Kojo, thank you. My comment is that it appears that it is a bunch of males, and especially a bunch of white males, being overtly arrogant and cocky and thinking that they can just do whatever, whenever, however, to whomever. And they will cover their tails at any cost, at any expense. And throughout history, that has really been the case. It's extremely unfortunate and I think it's shameful.
CHRISAnd, if the military really wants to do something about it, they've got to get a hold -- a handle on that, and maybe put more women, put more people of color in places of position in the military, because it's not going to stop.
NNAMDIChris, thank you very much for your call. Craig, are the top brass discussing whether there is, as Chris asserts, something in the military culture itself that needs addressing?
WHITLOCKWell, I think there is a question in the military culture. As you would expect, there's an enormous premium placed on command and rank and deference to rank. You know, people need to carry out orders. And so, you know, of course maybe there's less questioning or accountability when you have somebody in a high-ranking position who does something wrong or ethically questionable that you -- particularly the higher in the ranks they rise, when they become generals or admirals -- people are loathe to question them, to say, "Sir, that's not such a good idea.
WHITLOCKYou know, I noticed that you're having an affair or you're drinking on the job." And these are cases we're written about. And people are reluctant to flag that sometimes.
NNAMDIIs it possible that these most recent revelations -- cheating, bribery -- were always present, but that the military had been able to keep a lid on them before now?
WHITLOCKWell, there's no question that they have always been present. You know, we've always had cases like this in the military, just like you've had in society at large. You know, these aren't -- human failings aren't new. These things have happened. And I think it's also a fair characterization to say that the military, in many cases, does strive to keep a lid on these embarrassments. You know, like most institutions, they don't like to air their dirty laundry. But we have seen an unusual number of cases -- a striking number of cases in the last couple of years.
WHITLOCKSome of this started, I think, when General David Petraeus, who was then the CIA director, was forced to resign because he had an affair. And this, you know, he was such a renowned commander and the military held him in such high regard. You know, this was the best and brightest they had. And then, but after that there were a number of cases of other commanders who were investigated for, you know, for adultery, for bribery, for other ethical transgressions. And it does rightfully lead to questions of, you know, what's going on here if our best and brightest are getting in trouble for these things?
WHITLOCKWhat does that say?
NNAMDIOn to Josh in Washington D.C. Josh, your turn.
JOSHHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. One thing, from being a prior service member, that a lot of the public doesn't really understand about the military is our culture of taking care of the guy to your right and to your left, because those are the guys that you depend on to survive anything that we get put into. So from my standpoint and a lot of the guys that I know, that's where these issues come in. It's not that necessarily we're trying to cheat the system or, you know, not be ready to take care of our duties to the American public. But it's more that we are trying to take care of the guys that, in all reality, become our family.
JOSHSo you take care of the guy to your right and your left to make sure that everybody in your unit stays in your unit and that nobody's left behind.
NNAMDITo what extent did that kind of loyalty, Craig Whitlock, can survive even the notion, the understanding that look, what we're doing here is cheating, something wrong?
WHITLOCKWell, that's a really good question. Of course, loyalty is to be prized and is, you know, such a crucial feature in military life, to take care of your buddy, your colleagues, the people you're serving with. But that is a really good question. You know, many people in the military would say you're obligated to report unethical behavior. When you see somebody cheating or breaking the law, that covering up for them, keeping it in the family doesn't do the family any good. It just harms it in the end.
NNAMDICraig Whitlock. He is Pentagon and national security reporter for the Washington Post. You should know that Craig Whitlock has been with the Post since 1998. He's reported for more than 50 countries working with other Post reporters. He's been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize three times, most recently in 2013. Craig, thank you so much for joining us.
WHITLOCKThanks, Kojo. Enjoyed it.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, the Obama Administration has pledged $7 billion to help build the power grid in Africa. We'll talk about what it means for U.S. companies looking to invest on the continent. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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