The Pentagon's response to the recent spate of ethical lapses rocking the entire U.S. military has been devoid of the kind of dramatic moves that Washington craves: there have been no high-profile firings, no generals publicly rebuked, and no announcements of far-reaching punishments that would indicate that the top officials are taking it all seriously.
Those types of measures would typically be carried out by the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel took a small step this month when he announced he would assign a senior officer to his own front office to investigate exactly what has gone wrong recently and to help suggest ways of fixing those issues. Hagel's top military adviser, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, meanwhile, has been largely invisible. That's raised questions about why the chairman hasn't been more heavily involved in addressing the cheating scandals rocking the department, including the Air Force and Navy's nuclear forces and the embarrassing recent release of emails in which top Army commanders crudely discussed the sexual attractiveness of a female congresswoman.
Dempsey's defenders say he has been finding ways to reinstill ethical behavior across the armed forces for more than a year and that there are no easy fixes. Still, there are growing concerns inside and outside of the Pentagon that as the nation's senior military officer, Dempsey has yet to own the issue — or taken the kinds of steps to show that he is seriously addressing it.
“It's obvious to me that Hagel wants greater results, and he's sending a message to the system: I'm going to change this,” said a former senior defense official who has been critical of Hagel in the past but was struck by the secretary's decision. “Does it send a message to Marty Dempsey? Absolutely.”
Hagel, who typically appears alongside Dempsey in the Pentagon's briefing room, emerged alone recently to announce that he wanted to assign his own senior officer to deal with the issue.
“Competence and character are not mutually exclusive,” Hagel said. “An uncompromising culture of accountability must exist at every level of command. That must be practiced and emphasized by leadership at every level.”
Senior officials said assigning the as-yet-unidentified officer to Hagel's office was not aimed to be a knock on Dempsey, who was out of the building that day, but that Hagel nonetheless wanted to send a message that the issue needed to be treated with more urgency by all of his generals — including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Part of the concern about Dempsey's low profile on the ethics issues has to do with his public demeanor. Dempsey, who is known as the “singing general” for his penchant for breaking into song, has not embraced the public aspects of the job in the way others have. His immediate predecessor, Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, appeared on “The Daily Show” and seemed very much at ease with the press. Dempsey seems to tolerate reporters, though just barely, but prefers to perform his duties unmolested by the whims of the media. That has not helped him to be seen in and outside of the Pentagon as being strong on the ethical issues confronting the department.
“He's eloquent, but [Dempsey] has not demonstrated an ability to keep the spotlight on the reforms that he has developed, and that's been a concern,” according to one administration official.
Dempsey hasn't ignored the current crisis. Critics of the way the Pentagon has responded to the ethics scandals fault both men for failing to relieve any high-ranking commanders, a move former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates took whenever he wanted to send a clear message that the military was serious about policing itself. Brigadier General Martin Schweitzer is the only officer who has been disciplined for the current miscues, and it was done quietly by Dempsey.
Schweitzer was punished for writing a series of e-mails to a fellow officer that described Rep. Renee Ellmers, a Republican from North Carolina with whom he had just met, as “smoking hot.” Schweitzer then suggested he had masturbated after a meeting with her in his office. While comparably low on the wrongdoing scale — Schweitzer isn't accused of more serious offenses like financial misdeeds — it reflected the kind of sloppy conduct by senior officers that has been at the heart of the military's current problems.
Schweitzer, who is now assigned to the Pentagon's Joint Staff, has not been dismissed. But officials tell Foreign Policy that Dempsey recommended that Schweitzer, who was assigned to brief Hagel regularly, lose that high-profile role because of the allegations against him.
Dempsey's defenders also note that the chairman has pushed for a number of changes to the ways the military promotes its officers and offers them advanced training as they ascend its hierarchy. Dempsey has been attempting to reshape education and training where appropriate, re-instilling it with the kinds of principles of leadership and professional conduct that have long been the hallmark of military service, say officials. He's also moved to reform the archaic promotion system, including making changes to officer evaluation reports so they include a “360-degree” assessment from their subordinates that could help identify problems before they manifest themselves. Dempsey has also assigned Marine Lt. Gen. Tom Waldhauser, a well-respected officer, to be his point man on ethics issues on the Joint Staff.