Pentagon Blasts Navy’s Tailhook Investigation


The Navy conducted a poorly coordinated, halfhearted investigation into sexual assault allegations stemming from the 1991 Tailhook convention, and did so under the direction of an admiral who apparently doubted that women belonged in the military, Pentagon investigators said Thursday in their first major report on the scandal.

The report, released at a press conference by acting Navy Secretary Sean O’Keefe, criticized three naval officers and the Navy’s second-highest-ranking civilian for their roles overseeing an investigation hobbled by bad planning, a narrow focus on lower-level officers and an exaggerated concern for the Navy’s reputation.

As naval investigators turned up evidence of infractions other than sexual assault, the officials managing the effort failed to widen their inquiry, the Defense Department’s inspector general, Derek Vander Schaaf, concluded. And despite continued recommendations from colleagues, the admiral in charge of the Naval Investigative Service refused to allow interviews of senior officers, even after it became clear that some had witnessed improper acts and failed to intervene.


As expected, O’Keefe accepted the resignations of two admirals cited in the report, Rear Adm. Duvall M. Williams Jr., commander of the Naval Investigative Service, and Rear Adm. John E. Gordon, the Navy’s judge advocate general, its chief legal officer. A third admiral, Rear Adm. George W. Davis VI, the Navy’s inspector general, came in for less stringent criticism and has been reassigned.

But in a surprise move, O’Keefe said he continues to have “complete confidence” in Navy Undersecretary J. Daniel Howard and has decided to keep him on as the Navy’s second in command, despite the inspector general’s finding that Howard failed to force the two organizations investigating the scandal to coordinate their work. Howard told Pentagon investigators that he had felt powerless to order such coordination.

O’Keefe noted that Howard has moved aggressively and quickly to address the source of the sexual harassment problems in the Navy.

O’Keefe also announced the reorganization of the Navy’s investigative services to streamline their mission and put them under direct civilian supervision.

Release of the findings Thursday set the stage for the next turn in the Tailhook saga--a report that will reconstruct details of what happened last September at the infamous Las Vegas convention, and who did what.

Although that report is certain to include more sensational details, the one issued Thursday in many ways provides more insight into the atmosphere and attitudes many believe led to the incidents at the Tailhook convention.


The Tailhook Assn. is a private, nonprofit organization of retired and active aviators that promotes carrier aviation. Until the Navy severed ties with the group earlier this year, the association and the Navy worked closely together for more than 30 years.

Williams and Gordon disputed the report. Williams called it “fundamentally unfair that I could be tried, convicted and sentenced . . . without due process in a report containing so many inaccuracies and distortions.” Davis could not be reached for comment.

Williams, the commander who most directly oversaw the investigation, had repeatedly expressed a desire to end the investigation and on one occasion told a Navy civilian that he did not believe women belong in military service, the report said.

For his part, Gordon “failed to ensure that the Navy fully addressed the issues” in the investigation, and failed to provide the service with “a comprehensive report” that the service could use to correct its problems.

On another occasion, the report said, Williams told Assistant Navy Secretary Barbara S. Pope words to the effect that “a lot of female Navy pilots are go-go dancers, topless dancers or hookers.”

Speaking to a junior naval investigator, Williams at one point observed that a female officer who had come forward with complaints had used profane language in describing her alleged assault. “Any women who would use the f-word on a regular basis would welcome this type of activity,” the female investigator quoted Williams as saying.

Davis, whose task was to investigate non-criminal aspects of the scandal, told Defense Department investigators that he did not interview senior officials who attended the convention or identify individuals for disciplinary action because such actions would be perceived as a “witch hunt.”

Williams’ comments, Vander Schaaf concluded, “demonstrated an attitude that should have caused an examination of his suitability to conduct the investigation.” Vander Schaaf indicated that Davis was willing to excuse officers’ tolerance for sexual misconduct by arguing that Navy culture had been indulgent toward such behavior in the past.

“While it is easy to be sympathetic to the attitude . . . it must ultimately be rejected,” the report said. “The time for attributing misconduct of that nature to a ‘cultural problem’ had long since passed.”

In introducing the report, O’Keefe declared tolerance for such attitudes a thing of the past.

“We get it,” O’Keefe said. “We know that the larger issue is a cultural problem which has allowed demeaning behavior and attitudes toward women to exist within the Navy Department. Our senior leadership is totally committed to confronting this problem and demonstrating that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. Those who don’t get the message will be driven from our ranks.”

At the same time, O’Keefe defended the Navy’s progress in addressing sexual harassment problems and its ability to investigate future complaints of sexual impropriety in its ranks. Several members of Congress have proposed divesting the Navy and the other armed services of their role in investigating sexual molestation cases.

In an effort to head off such measures, O’Keefe on Thursday announced several moves designed to make the Navy’s investigative arms more independent and effective. Key among them was a decision to place a civilian, who would report directly to the Navy secretary, at the head of the Naval Investigative Service. The move would insulate the investigative service from uniformed officers.

O’Keefe also directed that the Naval Investigative Service will concentrate on criminal investigations and strengthened the role of the naval inspector general in conducting inquiries into matters not expected to result in criminal charges. After reassignment of Davis, the naval inspector general’s office will be filled by a vice admiral for a final tour of duty before retirement. That move too is designed to insulate the Navy’s inspector general from the influence of more senior Navy leadership.

One of the central questions raised by Vander Schaaf’s report is whether investigators acted to shield then-Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III from scrutiny in the case.

Garrett, who resigned in late June over the Tailhook scandal, had rejected the advice of a staff member who warned of “indecent conduct,” and attended the 1991 Tailhook convention. He told naval investigators that he never entered the entertainment suites that lined the third-floor hall where naval officers allegedly grabbed or disrobed more than 26 women. In his resignation, Garrett angrily denied that he had witnessed or known of any misconduct.

The testimony of a Marine Corps officer who disputed Garrett’s contention did not appear in the final version of the Navy’s report, raising questions about whether naval investigators were covering for the secretary. Vander Schaaf’s investigators also interviewed a second witness--a retired Navy captain--whose account of Garrett’s actions contradicts the secretary’s statements. The Navy captain took a lie detector test and “was found to be non-deceptive,” the report said.

“We believe the statements contradicting the secretary’s affidavit cast doubt on the secretary’s credibility regarding his activities on the third floor,” the report said. Garrett could not be reached for comment Thursday.

O’Keefe said Thursday that the resignations of Williams and Gordon “were certainly encouraged.” Although Howard “would have been willing to step down” if there had been a crisis of confidence, O’Keefe “wouldn’t exactly say” that Howard had specifically offered to resign.

Gordon, who was out of the country at the time the Navy’s reports were completed, told The Times on Thursday that the Pentagon investigation “is flawed and factually incorrect. In the coming days, I will do everything I can to set the record straight.”

Gordon had submitted retirement papers to the Navy on Sept. 9, well before O’Keefe’s announcement Thursday. He appeared intent upon disputing the Navy’s efforts to portray his departure as an admission of fault in the case.

Thursday’s actions were welcomed by two alleged victims of sexual assaults at the convention.

Lisa C. Reagan and Marie Colleen Weston, both Sacramento residents who are suing the Navy and the Tailhook Assn., said the Pentagon report supported their complaints that the Navy investigation of the scandal was a whitewash.

The women said they were assaulted in a third-floor hallway of the Las Vegas Hilton on Sept. 7, 1991, by up to 100 Navy and Marine officers attending the Tailhook convention.

Weston said the attacks lasted no more than five minutes. But she said the suffering will last a lifetime. Both women are still in therapy.

“What O’Keefe did is a good start. But I don’t think they should stop now,” Reagan said.

Times staff writer H. G. Reza in San Diego contributed to this story.