FITTING THE CRIME?
MAY 23, 1997
After much speculation, the U.S. Air Force has announced it will grant a general discharge to First Lt. Kelly Flinn rather than the honorable discharge she requested. But she will no longer face court-martial charges of adultery and disobeying orders. Elizabeth Farnsworth and regional commentators discuss the ramifications of this decision.
JIM LEHRER: Now, to the Lt. Kelly Flinn decision and to Elizabeth Farnsworth.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Lt. Flinn, the nation's first female B-52 bomber pilot, accepted the Air Force's offer of a general discharge yesterday, rather than face a court martial on charges of adultery, disobeying an order, lying, and fraternization. Under Air Force regulations a general discharge is given when "normally faithful service is marred by negative aspects of a person's duty performance or personal conduct. A CNN-USA Today Gallup poll of 643 people yesterday showed 53 percent disapproved of the Air Force's handling of the Flinn case; 33 percent approved. We go to our regional commentators now for their assessment. They are Patrick McGuigan of the "Daily Oklahoman;" Lee Cullum of the "Dallas Morning News"--she may not be with us--she's going in and out because of the storm, but I think she is with us now; Mike Barnicle of the "Boston Globe;" Cynthia Tucker of the "Atlanta Constitution;" and Robert Kittle of the "San Diego Union-Tribune." Pat McGuigan, did the Air Force do the right thing in giving Lt. Flinn a general discharge?
PATRICK McGUIGAN, Daily Oklahoman: Well, I think you can make a strong case on the merits that they should have continued with the court martial, but given the context of the last, you know, several days where the pressure was just unbelievable on the Air Force to cave, if you will, completely and give her an honorable discharge, I think it's a remarkable thing that they stuck to their guns as much as they did. I also find that 53 percent--percentage of disapproval kind of interesting, because I think at least four or five days ago that was actually worse. I think the most amazing thing about this perhaps in the public relations aspect is the role of Trent Lott in basically undercutting the military's efforts in these last few days to uphold standards of discipline. It's been a remarkable episode to watch and read about from out here.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Lee Cullum, what is your view of what the Air Force has decided?
LEE CULLUM, Dallas Morning News: Elizabeth, I felt that Lt. Flinn really did deserve an honorable discharge. I think her record, her remarkable record of service, merited that. Of course, it would have been even better if she might have stayed in the Air Force. A million dollars or more had been invested in her training. But of course that was settled months ago when her commanding officer handled the situation with alarming ineptitude. She should have been ordered counseling. Perhaps she might have been transferred to another base. She might even have been fined or reprimanded. But it never should have come to this point.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mike Barnicle, where do you come down on this?
MIKE BARNICLE, Boston Globe: Now, the Secretary of the Air Force must have had to soak her face in cement before she stood up and made the preposterous statement that this was not about adultery; it was about lying under oath and disobeying an order, when the root of it was all about adultery, adultery charged to an unmarried woman, adultery charged to an unmarried woman by clearly an incompetent commanding officer who couldn't have handled the thing in-house. When she's confronted with it, she lies about her sexual relations with a guy. More people lie about sex in America than any other subject other than golf. And for this, she's all done. The Air Force has ruined this woman's reputation and cashiered a perfectly good pilot when anyone at all familiar with the Military Code of Justice could have informed the Secretary of the Air Force and the commanding general that there was a way to handle this right up top, in front, in the house, and it never should have gotten to the point where it got.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Bob Kittle, was there a different way to handle it? Did the Air Force handle it all right?
ROBERT KITTLE, San Diego Union-Tribune: I think the Air Force did handle it correctly. And, in fact, you know, we in the news media are, you know, this is kind of an irresistible tale of Hester Prynne falling in love with the wrong man, a man who, you know, was cheating on his own wife and lying to her. It's kind of--it's kind of an intriguing story. But the facts frankly were a lot more complicated than that. And in this case the Air Force would have made a huge mistake had it simply granted a dishonorable discharge which would have been unpreceden`ted for the Air Force when such serious charges were pending. And the serious charges were not the adultery charge, but rather the fact that Lt. Flinn had lied under oath and in writing and had obeyed--disobeyed a direct order from her superior officer. In that case, had the Air Force granted an honorable discharge under those circumstances it would have created enormous morale problems within the ranks, and it would have undermined good order and discipline. And frankly, that's a lesson that the Navy learned quite painfully in its reaction to the Tailhook scandal. So, yes, I think the Air Force and Sec. Widnall, in particular, made the right decision here.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Cynthia, what do you think about the decision? Do you think it was about adultery or about lying?
CYNTHIA TUCKER, Atlanta Constitution: Well, it was about both. It was a very complicated case. It was not simply, as Bob alluded, a Hester Prynne story of a woman who falls in love with the wrong guy, though that certainly was part of the story. But adultery was the heart of the matter. I think in the final analysis the Air Force got out of this as well as it could. I think the general discharge was a reasonable compromise, given the circumstances, and it did allow the Air Force to preserve something important and that was reinforcing its code of discipline as the Secretary talked about; however, it is absolutely true that it should never have come to this. The Air Force had many, many other choices all along the way, and, in fact, while it chose last year to bring up on court martial charges some 70 people, there were hundreds--a hundred or so more who were handled in other quiet manners that did not ruin their career. And so it was certainly possible for the Air Force to avoid this great waste of a pilot who by her superior's assessment was an exemplary pilot.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Pat McGuigan, what do you think is the message in this case? Is the message that the military needs to be--accommodate itself more to the broader society; that it needs to be more tolerant, or is there a different message in this case, do you think?
PATRICK McGUIGAN: Well, I think a lot of people want the message to be that the military should accommodate itself to the--guys, if you will. I'm not sure that should be the message. I think we ask of and expect the military to uphold high standards, the highest standards possible, given their mission and their duties. I think another message for me is the press coverage, which I think was until the last couple of days kind of superficial. Bob is absolutely correct, and Cynthia is largely correct in her analysis of the implications of the charges, because if you go back and look through this, Quinn Hillyer next door to us over in Arkansas at the "Democrat Gazette" did a very good summary of this. And he pointed out that there was the possibility of up to a year on adultery, but there was a total of eight and a half years of additional possible punishment for four other charges--lying to an officer--superior officer--conduct unbecoming an officer; disobeying a director order to stop her behavior, a prohibited relationship with an enlisted man. I could go on. The Air Force was in a difficult situation because of the PR, and so I agree with Cynthia in that respect; that they took maybe the best way out at the end, but it's, again, ironic. You've got the Clinton administration through Sheila Widnall, the Secretary, if anything, being tougher, laying down a tougher line and standard than what Trent Lott articulated the other day on the Hill. And I can only salute the Department of the Air Force for doing at least that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Lee Cullum, do you think that there's a message in this about the--the military needing to accommodate itself more to the righter society or not?
LEE CULLUM: Well, Elizabeth, I don't think it's a matter of accommodation. I think it's a mater of wisdom. You know, what's going on here is nothing new. Let's think back to World War II. Did not Dwight Eisenhower get involved with a subordinate named Kay Somersby? And yet he was a great war hero. That isn't negated in the slightest, even though I regret whatever happened, and I regret Lt. Flinn's mistakes. They were mistakes. She's only 26 years old. I think that she might have learned a lesson and carried on and served the country admirably. So it's not accommodation. It's a matter of common sense.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Mike Barnicle, what do you think the broader message of this is? What does it mean about the military and society?
MIKE BARNICLE: It means join the Marine Corps, not the Air Force; that's what it means. This is not a complex case; this really isn't, despite what's been said here this evening. This woman was charged with adultery, not while on duty, not while flying a B-52 bombing run, not while decoding nuclear codes. She was charged with adultery while off base. This has more to do with the Air Force chain of command than it has to do with Lt. Kelly Flinn. This has to do with finding competent officers who are capable of addressing personal situations that arise out of military service that might not affect military service. That's what I think this has to do with.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Cynthia, is that what it's about--finding the different officers--or is it about--is there something about the military and society here that we have to learn?
CYNTHIA TUCKER: Well, yes, I think that there is, and that is the military is different. They ought to be different. They have the right to be different, but the military ought to also set standards that are reasonable for its mission, and I don't think that they have done that in the case of Kelly Flinn. Let me both agree and disagree with Mike. This is a complex case. Let us not forget that Kelly Flinn was involved with a man who was married to an enlisted airman, so Kelly Flinn was in the position where she might have to work with the woman whose husband she was having an affair with. That poses a threat to military discipline; however, it is also true that adultery in the Air Force is not new and that it has been dealt with much more--with much more common sense than it was in the Kelly Flinn case. Let me say that the military should not adhere to the standards of society. It has reason to have more discipline. It has reason to avoid sexual relationships in certain cases. But I am not sure that it has understood itself that there are--that there are other standards, that there are other ways to deal with sexual relationships without eliminating all of them, without prosecuting a pilot like Kelly Flinn, while not first trying other measures.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Bob Kittle, do you see wider meaning military society relationships here?
ROBERT KITTLE: Well, I think there's a lesson for us civilians in this, and that is that the military does, indeed, live by a different standard, and there are very good reasons for that. Men and women in the military live together, work together, potentially fight together and die together. And, therefore, the rules there are different than the rules for the rest of society. And it's worth remembering that the Air Force did try--Kelly Flinn's superior officer did try to end this at a lower level. He directed her to break off the relationship once he learned about it. She persisted, and I suppose that's only human, but when the case got more complicated through lying and other things, then the disciplinary measures had to come forward. So I think the lesson for us is that we shouldn't necessarily expect the military services to follow the same rules that the civilian world does, but what we should expect is that the rules be applied on a uniform basis, not selectively, and that everyone live by the same standards in the military. And frankly, Air Force Sec. Widnall's decision in this case I think upholds the principle that everyone must live by the same standards.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you all very much.