Academy Probe: Go Outside

Air Force Secretary James Roche went to Colorado Springs last month to strongly condemn the 56-and-counting rapes and assaults alleged to have taken place at the U.S. Air Force Academy over the last decade. Although it may sound like faint praise to applaud what should be an obviously appropriate response, Roche's remarks can be considered progress compared with the Navy's smug, foot-dragging reaction to the 1991 Tailhook scandal.

Real progress, of course, would be eliminating sexual predation from the military. The academies are the place to start. But Roche must first abandon his stubborn assertion that the investigation of the widening scandal is best handled internally.

His Harvard Business School training, Roche told The Times, taught him that "you don't turn to outsiders." The Colorado academy taught its female cadets the opposite lesson. Those who reported assaults -- some said upperclassmen ordered female cadets out of bed and gang-raped them -- were ignored or even punished. They couldn't turn to insiders.

How, then, can they be expected to trust Air Force investigators? The Colorado media broke the story of the alleged assaults in January. The Air Force investigators hardly instilled confidence when they then failed to interview the female cadets on campus who had reported rapes and did not talk to the off-campus civilian rape crisis center. Criticism sent them back, but sexual assaults go unreported even in far more sympathetic settings.

If common sense isn't enough to convince the Air Force to seek an independent investigation, history should do the job. A dozen years ago, the admiral assigned to investigate Tailhook, an orgy of harassment at a Navy convention in Las Vegas, shrugged off charges that women were forced to run a gantlet of groping men by saying that men never wanted women in the military in the first place.

Roche made clear just who it is the military does not welcome: a cadet who sexually assaults anyone. "We do not want you in our Air Force," he said in an address at the academy. "We don't want you to sully the uniform."

It's the right attitude. But the way to get to the bottom of the scandal and punish those responsible -- including those who disciplined the women who reported being attacked -- is to bring in outside investigators. Congress, whose members choose the young men and women for academy appointments, should insist on it.

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