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Army Mothballs Phone Hotline for Reporting Sex Misconduct Charges

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Army abruptly shut off its sexual misconduct telephone hotline Friday, saying that the 8-month-old service has “served its purpose” and probably was being misused by anonymous tipsters seeking revenge.

Officials said that the line, which had logged more than 8,300 calls since it was inaugurated last November, will be replaced by an “assistance line” that will offer advice to soldiers who believe they are victims of sexual misconduct.

Operators of the new line will not take complaints, but they will refer callers to agencies that do, including the office of the Army inspector general and the service’s criminal investigative arm.

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The line was set up during the first weeks of disclosures about the sexual misconduct involving Army drill sergeants and trainees at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in northeastern Maryland. Army investigators initiated investigations of allegations in more than 1,200 of the calls. About 330 investigations still are in progress.

The worst sex scandal in U.S. military history so far has generated charges against 12 soldiers at Aberdeen and many others elsewhere in the United States and at posts abroad.

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In a statement, the Army said that the hotline had “done its job,” noting that the calls had “dwindled to a limited number per week.” And “there are indications that the hotline may have been used by some callers for purposes not consistent with it original mission,” the statement said.

In an effort to staunch any flood of complaints inspired by the case of Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Army stopped following up on anonymous calls several days ago. Ralston withdrew his candidacy for chairman of the joint chiefs after a firestorm of media coverage and controversy was generated by callers who told several newspapers that he had conducted an affair 13 years ago while he was married to his first wife.

The decision comes one week after top Pentagon officials, including Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, began expressing concerns that anonymous tipsters were using the service.

The hotline was used more than once, for example, to report that Gen. John Longhouser, the Aberdeen commanding officer, had conducted an affair five years ago. Longhouser, who was charged with carrying out justice in the case of Aberdeen soldiers, chose to retire.

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Some women’s advocates said they understood the Army’s desire to prevent the hotline from becoming a “revenge line” that could be used to destroy the careers of rivals. And they said that the special line had been in service long enough to draw out most complaints.

But several said they were concerned that the Army might not investigate all complaints with the same seriousness that it had looked into allegations from the hotline, which had a special status.

“The question is, whether things will be swept under the rug here,” said Lynn Hecht-Schafran, a former Defense Department lawyer who currently is with the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York. Soldiers could be thrown back against a system “that in the past proved so unsatisfactory.”

Top defense officials had been hinting that they planned to shut down the hotline, which has been operated out of offices in northern Virginia. But they had given no indication that the end would come so soon.

The Army has yet to release an upcoming report from a high-level task force that was charged with diagnosing the lessons of the Aberdeen scandal.

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