Pentagon Battles With Adultery Controversy


The Pentagon sought support Thursday for Defense Secretary William S. Cohen’s top choice to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff--a senior officer who has admitted committing adultery--but the battle quickly widened into an effort to convince the nation that the military was not applying a double standard on sexual infractions.

One day after the Pentagon’s disclosure that Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston conducted an adulterous affair more than a decade ago, officials sought to explain how in different circumstances such relationships could put some service members in jail and others in retirement while not eliminating one--Ralston--from candidacy for the armed forces’ most coveted post.

“I am satisfied Gen. Ralston’s conduct was neither prejudicial to good order and discipline nor discrediting to the armed forces,” Cohen said in a statement. He added that Ralston remains “a leading candidate” for the Joint Chiefs post.

Still, Cohen said that he will not make his final recommendation for the job until next week at the earliest, meaning that the Clinton administration and Congress will have time to gauge public reaction to disclosure of Ralston’s affair.


Congressional reaction initially was cautious, with a scattering of lawmakers standing behind Ralston’s candidacy. But privately, some on Capitol Hill predicted that Clinton will not sign off on a candidate who will keep adultery in the headlines.

“This candidacy will quietly breathe its last gasp and somebody else will fill the job,” one senior congressional aide said.

The National Organization for Women said that Cohen’s decision to support Ralston “demonstrates that the double standards that benefit the old boys’ network are alive and well in the military.” That view was echoed by some members of Congress.

“It is very clear that the Pentagon is selectively enforcing its rules on sexual conduct,” said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.). “The Pentagon is employing a double standard. . . . We cannot have one set of rules for the big boys in the Pentagon and another for the rank and file.”

Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) noted that the Air Force had charged its first female B-52 pilot with adultery. “Whether this is due to rank or gender, it is still a double standard and it is wrong,” he said. “This morning, women all over America are scratching their heads over this.”

The arguments sparked by the Ralston case marked a further intensification of the debate over the military’s rules for sexual misconduct that has gathered force for months. And as Pentagon officials acknowledged that the military has failed so far to explain why it needs rules on adultery in its code of conduct, Cohen signaled that he intends a broader review of whether the rules are properly conceived and carried out.

Kenneth H. Bacon, chief Pentagon spokesman, acknowledged at a news conference that a recent wave of widely reported cases has raised the issue of whether the system of enforcing sexual rules has been knocked “out of balance.”

“The secretary realizes that has to be addressed. He’s toiling with that question now,” Bacon said. Over the next few months, he said, Cohen will look over the rules and how they are implemented by commanding officers in the field.

“This may be a problem of training or of enforcement or of explanation” to troops and the civilian world, Bacon said.

Ralston, 53, now vice chairman of the joint chiefs, had an affair with a CIA employee from August 1983 to June 1984, while the two of them were students at the National War College near Washington and at a time when Ralston was separated from his then wife.

Defense officials Thursday laid out their case that the affair was different from the infractions that in recent weeks have ended the career of 1st Lt. Kelly Flinn, a B-52 pilot; forced the retirement of Gen. John E. Longhouser, commander of the Army’s Aberdeen Ordnance Center and School, and brought a suspension of duties for a Navy admiral and an Army general.

The military code provides that an adulterous affair is only against the rules if the conduct has the effect of directly harming “good order and discipline,” officials said. And the harm to the military organization must not be in “some indirect or remote sense,” Bacon, said, quoting the military guide to courts-martial.

Disputing charges that the Pentagon is using a double standard in the Ralston case, Bacon said: “The issue is balance. The issue is doing the right thing. . . . We are not voyeurs.”

Officials noted that Ralston was not in charge of troops when his affair occurred.

The officials also distinguished between Ralston’s case and that of Longhouser’s by pointing out that the Aberdeen commander’s relationship was with a Defense Department employee, meaning that he and the woman were both part of the same larger organization. Also complicating Longhouser’s situation, they said, was that as commanding officer he was directly responsible for overseeing the justice meted out to the 12 drill instructors accused of sexual misconduct at the Aberdeen base.

Divorce court filings in 1988 by Ralston’s ex-wife, Linda, alleged that--although Ralston began his affair while the couple was separated--he subsequently violated their reconciliation by resuming the affair. Pentagon officials disputed that Ralston had resumed his affair while he was married, saying that he began it again only after his divorce was final.

They also said that Ralston’s case was dramatically different from the celebrated affair of Flinn, who was accused not only of adultery but of submitting a false written statement, conducting an affair with an enlisted airman and violating a direct order from her commander to stay away from a man with whom she had an illicit romance.

Ralston never lied about his affair, the officials noted. They said that Ralston failed to disclose the relationship earlier in the deliberations over Cohen’s choice for the top uniformed post because he considered it “incidental” to his conduct in office.

Bacon also defended Ralston against charges that he was guilty of hypocrisy because of his role in forcing the 1995 retirement at reduced rank of Lt. Gen. Thomas Griffith, former head of the 11th Air Force, after an adulterous affair.

Griffiths’ infractions were far more serious because they were committed over a longer time while he was a commanding officer and was living with his wife. They were also committed in sight of Air Force subordinates and thus risked disruption.

Ralston’s case “is not the Flinn case--or the Longhouser case--or the Griffith case,” Bacon said. The circumstances were “perfectly human and understandable and not particularly troubling.”

A top defense official said that the decision on Ralston’s candidacy is now “in the hands of Capitol Hill. I suspect they’re going to listen to their public.”

A number of lawmakers supported Cohen’s decision not to withdraw Ralston’s candidacy. On the Senate Armed Services Committee, which must confirm any nomination before it goes to the full Senate for a vote, these included Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) also supported Cohen’s decision “At some point, the book should be closed,” Feinstein said. “A person should be allowed to go along.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) declared that, if Ralston can be forgiven, “then I believe Kelly Flinn and others in her situation could have been forgiven as well.”

On Capitol Hill, some aides predicted that the nominee ultimately would be Marine Gen. John Sheehan, who is thought to be Cohen’s No. 2 choice for the job.

As Ralston’s candidacy drew national comment, another prominent case moved toward a quiet resolution. Officials said that the Army’s top enlisted man, Sgt. Major of the Army Gene C. McKinney, has requested retirement, which would end possible disciplinary proceedings resulting from the sexual harassment allegations of four military women. But they said that no decision had been reached on his application for an honorable discharge.

Times staff writers Heather Knight and Dina Bass and researcher D’Jamila Salem-Fitzgerald contributed to this story.

* AFFAIRS IN ARMS: Adultery in military raises complex issues. A19