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Will military scandals erode public confidence in the armed forces?

February 5, 2014 at 6:40 PM EDT
Three of the military’s five branches are ramping up investigations into some of the most serious scandals for the armed forces in a generation. The latest involves charges that Navy trainers cheated on certification exams to teach at a nuclear reactor school. Gwen Ifill talks to Craig Whitlock who covers the Defense Department for The Washington Post.

GWEN IFILL: The military has increasingly been racked by scandal, as three of its five branches face allegations of cheating and fraud.

Just as the U.S. military is winding down 12 years of high-tempo operations, three of its services are ramping up investigations into some of the most serious scandals in a generation. The latest involves charges that Navy trainers cheated on certification exams to teach at a nuclear reactor school in Charleston, South Carolina.

ADM. JONATHAN GREENERT, Chief of Naval Operations: To say that I’m disappointed would be an understatement.

GWEN IFILL: The chief of naval operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, spoke at a Pentagon briefing yesterday.

ADM. JONATHAN GREENERT: We need to and we will remain vigilant. We will continue to drive home to our people the importance of integrity, the fact that it is the foundation of all that we do in the U.S. Navy.

GWEN IFILL: The Air Force, meanwhile, is conducting its own investigation in the nuclear ranks, one that grew out of a drug probe. It’s alleged that nearly 100 missile officers cheated on proficiency tests at a base in Montana.

The Pentagon’s top spokesman said Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel sees a troubled road ahead.

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY, Navy: I think he definitely sees this as a growing problem. And he’s concerned about the depth of it. I don’t think he could stand here and tell you that we — that he has, that anybody has the full grasp here. And that’s what worries the secretary.

GWEN IFILL: And a third scandal involving Army National Guard recruiting is among the largest in the service’s history. Senior officers and others are suspected of taking kickbacks under a program that awarded cash payments for signing up new recruits. Thousands of personnel are under investigation. The fraud is being counted in the tens of millions of dollars.

At a hearing yesterday, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill said, the misconduct went beyond those in uniform.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL, D-Mo.: Because anyone could sign up to be a recruiting assistant, there are also cases of people unaffiliated with the Army stealing names and Social Security numbers of potential recruits, and receiving referral payments that they were not entitled to.

GWEN IFILL: And it doesn’t end there. The Washington Post, using Freedom of Information Act disclosures, has reported on general officers and admirals whose behavior was unethical, cruel, inappropriately sexual, or, in many cases, illegal under military law.

So how serious are all these incidents?

For that, we turn to Craig Whitlock, who covers the Defense Department for The Washington Post.

Where to begin?  Let’s start with the Navy. How serious are the charges in Charleston?

CRAIG WHITLOCK, The Washington Post: Well, they are serious.

We don’t know the extent of it. Yesterday, the chief of naval operations and another admiral came out and said, we just found out about this. One sailor tipped us off that answers were being circulated among people who were operating nuclear reactors. But they don’t know the extent of it. We know there are 30 people under investigation.

But, as we saw with the Air Force, that tends to spread pretty quickly.

GWEN IFILL: And there was another case at the — involving the Navy involving silencers, contracting schemes?

CRAIG WHITLOCK: That’s right, a very bizarre case where senior intelligence officials in the Navy bought a whole bunch of silencers, unmarked ones, for a few million dollars that only cost a few thousand dollars to produce. And this is another strange case that the Navy is struggling to get to the bottom of.

GWEN IFILL: Now, the recruiting scandal, the recruiting investigation involving the Army, how much money are we talking about?

CRAIG WHITLOCK: Millions of dollars, and this is something that happened at the beginning of — had its beginning at the height of the Iraq war, when the Army was having trouble recruiting people.

And, essentially, they offered bonuses for referrals, but they didn’t check up on people who were claiming them within the Army. And, again, they have had a difficult time getting the extent of it, but it’s a lot of money, millions and millions of dollars.

GWEN IFILL: And how many people are involved, and who’s involved in that?

CRAIG WHITLOCK: Hundreds of people in the Army, and including up the chain of command, up to a two-star general.

GWEN IFILL: And maybe recruiters as well, just regular high school recruiters maybe?

CRAIG WHITLOCK: Well, it could be. I think it was also a lot of people in the Army who just had regular jobs, who were referring people who they said would be good candidates.

GWEN IFILL: And what is the status of the ongoing investigation in the Air Force involving those — the folks who had their hands on the button at Malmstrom Air Force Base?

CRAIG WHITLOCK: Well, so far, about 100 people have been implicated in that investigation, officers, who as you put it, who are in the missile silos, for cheating.

But what we know less about are the drug use allegations. The Air Force has said it’s investigating a drug abuse ring. That’s how they found out about this cheating to begin with. They have been pretty tight-lipped about how many people that involves.

And cheating is one thing, but drug use among people with their fingers on the button is really alarming.

GWEN IFILL: Haven’t all these branches of the military investigated themselves before in similar ways, especially like the recruiting scandal?  This is not the first time we have heard of that.

CRAIG WHITLOCK: It’s not the first time. But the military does have its own functions for internal investigations, but it doesn’t like to air its dirty laundry.

And with the recruiting scandal, this is something that was highlighted in Congress by the Senate. Senator Claire McCaskill had a hearing on this the other day. This is not some — these kind of things are not things that many branches in the military like to expose. And they tend to come out drip, drip, drip, sometimes with reporters, sometimes with Congress, and it takes a while to figure out the scope of them.

GWEN IFILL: That’s what Freedom of Information Act requests are all about.

So, is this something that the brass, the top brass worry or the civilian brass worry is eroding public confidence in the military?

CRAIG WHITLOCK: Well, it is, and it was pretty striking today to hear the Pentagon press secretary come out and say that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is worried about the moral courage and moral character of the force.

Those are very powerful words, but especially for the military, where honor and integrity are really at the core of when they do. The public holds these commanders and enlisted people in very high esteem for what they do. So, when the top man in the Pentagon says he’s concerned about the moral courage, moral character of the force and how big of a problem it is, that’s pretty serious.

GWEN IFILL: Is this something which multiple deployments can exacerbate?

CRAIG WHITLOCK: Well, it could.

And that’s something that the Pentagon has admitted it’s asking itself. General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has wondered if the strain of war has had an effect on things, and whether the military during wartime maybe turned a bit of a blind eye towards character issues, that it was so focused on whether commanders had tactical ability, were good at war fighting, but maybe they weren’t paying as much attention to their ethical flaws.

GWEN IFILL: It sounds like the Pentagon is moving away from the notion that these were just all one-offs and more toward the notion that maybe there’s something systemic going on?

CRAIG WHITLOCK: Well, that’s right. They are questioning that. They don’t know the answer.

But, clearly, it isn’t just one-offs. We’re seeing a pattern again and again and again of — a lot of it is personal misconduct, integrity issues, cheating, gambling, drinking, sleeping around, and among, again, the top brass with this.

And people, there are human frailties. There’s always going to be people who engage in this kind of conduct, but it’s rare to hear so many of these cases involving high-ranking commanders.

GWEN IFILL: It’s rare and it’s disturbing.

Craig Whitlock of The Washington Post, thank you.

CRAIG WHITLOCK: Thanks for having me.