June 5, 1997
Defense Secretary William Cohen has said an affair in the mid-'80's with a CIA employee will not disqualify Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston from being considered for the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Sec. Cohen's statement comes only days after he supported an Army general's resignation after a similar affair was uncovered. Both cases come only weeks after Lt. Kelly Flinn accepted a general discharge to avoid her own adultery charges. Does the Pentagon's top brass play be different rules? After a background report, Margaret Warner leads a discussion.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, for further perspective on this issue we have Retired General Michael Dugan, who was Air Force chief of staff in 1990. He's now the president of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society; Retired Air Force Colonel Scott Silliman, who served as an Air Force lawyer for 25 years. He now runs the Center on Law, Ethics, and National Security at the Duke University Law School; Congresswoman Tillie Fowler, a Republican from Florida, and a member of the House National Security Committee. She's also on a bipartisan congressional task force looking into sexual misconduct in the military. And Congresswoman Nita Lowey, a Democrat from New York. Welcome, all of you. General Dugan, did Secretary Cohen, do you think do the right thing, drawing the line, as he put it, here, in this case?
GENERAL MICHAEL DUGAN (Ret.), Former Air Force Chief of Staff: Margaret, I think he did do the right thing. The question that he's facing is a "peer-to-peer" issue of sexual indiscretion. There's no doubt about that. But it's not a matter of superior and subordinate. It's not a matter of commander and a non-commissioned officer. It's not a matter of line of activity within a chain of command. This is a 14 year old story, and it's a sad day when this story pushes off the terrific story of George Marshall from the front page of our major newspapers and from the NewsHour.
MARGARET WARNER: No, not from the NewsHour. It's going to come later in the show.
GENERAL MICHAEL DUGAN: Later.
MARGARET WARNER: Colonel Silliman, what is your view of this? Did Secretary Cohen do the right thing to draw the line here?
COLONEL SCOTT SILLIMAN (Ret.), Former Air Force Lawyer: No, I don't think he did, and I think the problem is not in trying to distinguish General Ralston's case from the Kelly Flinn case. I think the real problem that the secretary has is making the distinction between how General Ralston is being treated and how General Longhouser was treated just two days ago. As I recall, the Secretary was very forthright in suggesting that the general's retirement two days ago was appropriate and that the high standards of the service had to be upheld, even though it could cost a career. There is little difference, in my view, between the actual facts, between General Longhouser and General Ralston. Now, I must point out that I've served with General Ralston. I have the highest respect for him. And I think he's every much a victim as General Longhouser was, but I think the Secretary has made an extremely muddled precedent in the support he's now getting for General Ralston as far as how future cases involving enlisted members, involving officers of lower grade will be handled in the future.
MARGARET WARNER: Congresswoman Fowler, what's your view of the line that the secretary is trying to draw here?
REP. TILLIE FOWLER, (R) Florida: Well, I have the utmost respect for Secretary Cohen. I know he's going to be reviewing all the facts in this case. I'm hopeful that he's going to follow through on the convening of an outside commission to really review the rules and regulations governing adultery and other forms of sexual misconduct in the military because there is a need for consistency not only in the rules but in their application. I think that's part of the problem. There's some inconsistencies right now, and so people in the military don't know what the standard is and who's going to be held to which standard, whether they're generals or whether they're enlisted people. And we need some consistency.
MARGARET WARNER: But are you saying that you think in the Ralston case he's trying to help clarify the standard or adding to the confusion?
REP. TILLIE FOWLER: Well, I think he's trying to help clarify it, but I think he needs some outside help, too. I think he needs to convene this commission. And let's review all of it. I certainly do not condone adultery. I've been married for 29 years, and I believe in the sanctity of the marriage covenant. But we need to deter these hotlines that become gossip lines, whereby people can just make anonymous calls into them on anything and ruin people's reputations. They were set up to handle sexual abuse and sexual harassment, but they're becoming misused.
MARGARET WARNER: Congresswoman Lowey, how do you see this case?
REP. NITA LOWEY, (D) New York: I think Secretary of Defense Cohen has a real problem on his hands. And I rejoin with my colleague, Tillie Fowler, and urge him to appoint a blue ribbon panel commission immediately to sort out the rules and regulations. I've been married 36 years, and I think adultery is wrong; infidelity is wrong. But we really need a panel to review all the laws of sexual conduct and have some consistency and fairness in their applications. This last few days has really been like Alice in Wonderland. Some get a slap on the wrist; some get kicked out; some are asked to retire; some get a discharge. It's really not clear at all, and it sets a very confusing precedent.
MARGARET WARNER: Col. Silliman, going back to your--to your point, Secretary Cohen's decision was simply, as Ken Bacon pointed out, this information alone should not disqualify General Ralston from being considered for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. What's your view on that question? Should this disqualify him for consideration for this top job?
COLONEL SCOTT SILLIMAN: Well, I think if you're looking at what has happened in prior cases, in other words, officers have either asked to be retired or have been--it's been suggested that they retire--I think the Secretary has really made a distinction in these two cases, but when you look at the facts involved, it's a distinction without a difference. And so I am most concerned about the consistency aspect that's been mentioned previously; that there is no consistency now. Again, I've got nothing against General Ralston. I have the highest admiration for him. But I think you cannot resolve the consistency when you've got a senior officer like General Ralston hanging out, vulnerable in the press with these allegations made against him.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. General Dugan, what's your view of that point?
GENERAL MICHAEL DUGAN: I think there is a difference and a distinction. General Longhouser was the convening authority for a general court martial for a series of events which he did not have the responsibility for when he was the commander at Aberdeen, and he is in a different circumstance than General Ralston is for an activity 14 years ago when he was a student, turned in by one of his classmates, which is an interesting twist on the story, who now, after 14 years, has had the pangs of conscience to think this is an important issue to be brought to the American public's view. I think the American public is not nearly as sanguine about this as the press is. I think they understand that people that work for General Motors, General Electric, General Telephone, just like General Shalikashvili, have personal lives and every once in a while have some issues. And in the 32-year career, General Ralston has gotten to the point and made decisions and led organizations that leads General Shali and Secretary Cohen to continue to consider him as one of the top candidates for the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I think that's absolutely appropriate.
MARGARET WARNER: Congresswoman Lowey, what's your view on whether Secretary Cohen should stick by General Ralston and nominate him actually to be chairman?
REP. NITA LOWEY: I don't know General Ralston, but I clearly recommend to Secretary of Defense Cohen that he commission this panel immediately and not move further in the appointment of either General Ralston or anyone else until this is all clarified. It was just two weeks ago that Kelly Flinn, a 26-year-old woman, a trailblazer, a B-52 pilot, was asked to leave with a general discharge--can't fly for her country again. We see case after case that is just inconsistent. Adultery is adultery, and I strongly urge the rules to be reviewed so there can be some consistency and clarity. Look, I think this is an embarrassment to our armed services, and one of the officers said before, it's different when you have the responsibility to review the sexual harassment charges. The Joint Chiefs of Staff is in charge of the entire armed services, not only the moral code, but the operations of the entire services. And let's put it on hold. And I would expect that Secretary of Defense Cohen would put everything on hold until this review is done. And I do hope it's done immediately.
MARGARET WARNER: General Dugan, what about that point that the congresswoman just made, that whoever's chairman of the Joint Chiefs, in fact, has overall responsibility for everything in the military, including moral tone and so on?
GENERAL MICHAEL DUGAN: They certainly do. The troops and the American public have high expectations of their military in general and their senior leaders, but, again, I don't think that the American public is as sanguine about this as the press seems to be. I think that they understand that we're not hiring Mother Theresa to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs. We're looking for an individual who has broad experience in lots of areas; that is a good public relations spokesperson; that is a good negotiator that has combat experience; that has the respect of his peers and all the services; that has respect overseas and various other nations that we do business with. And General Ralston fits that role. In addition, this is the role for the secretary to try to put some leavening on the activities that the military in general are obliged to follow because of law and precedence. The secretary has decided that it's time to put an end to this feeding frenzy that's going on. And I think that this is a major point that only a Secretary can step into. I think he's very courageous in taking this step.
MARGARET WARNER: Congresswoman Fowler, I take your point that--that you think the Secretary should appoint a commission to look into this, but as someone who's dealt with these issues, if this isn't where you draw the line, where do you draw the line? I mean, General Dugan is saying, look, in civilian life, you have instances, people have human lives, personal lives, and that doesn't disqualify you from every big job. What's your view on this?
REP. TILLIE FOWLER: Well, this is the whole reason, Margaret, we need the commission, because you've determined the military is different, and you do hold members of the military to a higher standard. We have to always be considering good order and discipline. We have to make sure that national security is in no way imperiled. But I know the secretary as he reviews the facts over the coming weeks is going to be balancing all that. General Ralston has an outstanding 32-year career of service to his country. Whether one indiscretion when he was separated from his wife removes him from possibility as a candidates I think that's going to be up to the Secretary of Defense if he reviews all the facts to make that determination. As I pointed out earlier, I do think he needs to form this commission to let us review all of these rules and regulations and bring some consistency into the process. So once he designs where that line's going to be, set it, and everybody knows.
MARGARET WARNER: Colonel Silliman, how do you think what Secretary Cohen has done so far is being regarded within the military? Your former colleagues, people I assume you still talk to, are they taking heart from this or not?
COLONEL SCOTT SILLIMAN: I think they're greatly concerned about it. I think they're concerned because the line of the Air Force and the other services are looking for some rule, some consistent rule that they can say I will be judged similarly. And in the actions of the last two days that rule, if it existed before, has been severely muddled. So if I'm in a situation where I am facing a charge of adultery, then am I going to be concerned about how long ago it was, the things that General Dugan mentioned? In law, there's not that much of a difference between five years or fourteen years, or about whether the woman was an army civilian or an employee of another agency. That's never been used as a criteria before in military trials. And to try to split hairs like that in a charge which requires only a finding of prejudice, of good order and discipline, or conduct which is discrediting to the service I think is creating a tremendous problem for our military courts and the people in the various services need a consistent rule under which they can be judged.
MARGARET WARNER: And General Dugan, how do you think your former colleagues are regarding this?
GENERAL MICHAEL DUGAN: I think that they would judge Colonel Philbin's previous remarks--
MARGARET WARNER: Silliman--
GENERAL MICHAEL DUGAN: --as indicative of the very narrowness by which some military officers, in fact, maybe many, and perhaps the military justice system looks at issues. They would like black and white, and they have great difficulty with dealing with issues in gray and the middle. And this again is one reason why the Secretary needed to step in. This where political control of the military is important. This is where judgment has to be placed on this whole series of feeding frenzy issues, and where some rationale needs to be added to the equation.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, thank you all four, very much.