Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, saying he wanted “to draw a line” against a “frenzy” of sexual misconduct allegations, decided Wednesday to retain Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston as a leading candidate to become the nation’s top military commander even though Ralston had an adulterous affair 14 years ago.
“We need to come back to a rule of reason instead of a rule of thumb,” Cohen said in an interview Wednesday after consulting earlier in the day with President Clinton on the matter.
Ralston, 53, now vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and known to be Cohen’s favorite to become chairman, had not told Pentagon officials about the affair he had with a CIA employee until news organizations inquired about the matter this week.
Cohen, who spoke to Ralston about the matter Wednesday, said the affair lasted about a year, according to Ralston, and occurred while the couple was separated. Ralston and his wife, Linda, reconciled for a time but divorced in 1988.
According to court divorce records, Linda Ralston alleged that her husband reneged on his pledge to end the affair as a condition for reconciling and that the affair was still going on when she sought the divorce in 1987. She said the affair was the main reason she was seeking a divorce and that Ralston sought to keep it out of open court records to protect his career.
Ralston, traveling in Kazakhstan, denied Wednesday night through a senior Cohen aide that the affair continued during the period he had reconciled with Linda. He has since remarried.
Adultery is a crime in the military. Although the military rarely prosecutes soldiers and officers for adultery unless it is accompanied by other crimes, service members often have been forced into early retirement or had their pay or rank reduced.
Defense officials previously indicated that a decision on a new chairman was imminent. But Cohen said Wednesday he would wait another week or two before making a final recommendation to Clinton, an indication that he and his aides may first want to gauge public reaction to his support for Ralston.
Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, the current chairman and a known supporter of Ralston’s nomination to succeed him, renewed his endorsement Wednesday.
“What I have learned of this incident has not diminished my confidence in his ability to continue to serve this nation,” Shalikashvili said. “I remain firm in my belief that he would make a fine chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”
Ralston, then a colonel, was a student at the National War College here from August 1983 to June 1984 when the relationship with the CIA employee began.
In the interview, Cohen chided Ralston for not alerting officials to the incident earlier. But Cohen said his decision to retain the general as a candidate for the crucial post was based on Ralston’s exemplary service and the fact that the affair “did not disrupt the good order of the armed forces and did not attract discredit upon the armed forces.”
Cohen’s decision amounts to an attempt to establish some limits on the kinds of sexual indiscretions that would lead to career-ending disciplinary action.
In the last week alone, two Army generals were forced to leave the service because of improper relationships they had with civilian women who were not in any way involved in the men’s military duties.
The court case against Air Force 1st Lt. Kelly Flinn, the nation’s first female B-52 bomber pilot, who was charged with adultery, lying and disobeying an order, drew vociferous public criticism of the military’s selective prosecution of adultery cases.
One of the recent cases was that of Maj. Gen. John E. Longhouser, commander of the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, who retired this week at a reduced rank because he had an adulterous affair with a civilian five years ago while he was separated from his wife.
Changes at Aberdeen continued Wednesday. The Army announced that it was transferring the commander of the base’s training school but denied the move had anything to do with the sexual harassment scandal.
Maj. Gen. Robert Shadley, who has headed the Ordnance Center and School at Aberdeen for two years, will be reassigned as director of logistics at the headquarters of Army Forces Command at Ft. McPherson, Ga.
But Lt. Col. Bill Harkey, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon, said the reassignment of Shadley, 56, was routine after two years in a post and had nothing to do with charges and convictions of sexual harassment and rape of female recruits by male drill sergeants at Aberdeen.