New Military Ethics Chief Will Face A Full Plate

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is expected to appoint a senior officer to oversee military ethics, in response to recent high-profile ethics problems. Whoever takes the job will face a stiff challenge.

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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel wants to know if there's a pattern behind recent ethical problems in the military, like the cheating scandal among Air Force nuclear launch officers and the half dozen or so generals and admirals caught up in gambling and sexual misconduct and more. So now, Hagel is set to appoint a senior officer to report directly to him on ethics. As NPR's Tom Bowman reports, the officer will first have to figure out what's causing these problems and then find ways to prevent them.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: How the recent scandals were uncovered could point to broader problems in the military. Admiral John Richardson explained how word reached his desk that nearly three dozen nuclear instructors had been caught cheating.

ADMIRAL JOHN RICHARDSON: One of our sailors was offered to compromise his integrity, recognized that this was wrong, and reported it to the command.

BOWMAN: So a sailor blew the whistle, but that's rare.

FRED MALMSTROM: I have the greatest admiration for that sailor. There are not rewards for whistleblowing or calling other people down in dishonesty.

BOWMAN: That's Fred Malmstrom, a former Air Force officer and psychologist. He surveyed graduates of the three service academies and found something disturbing, a willingness to ignore ethical misconduct.

MALMSTROM: The biggest ingredient of cheating in the Armed Forces or anywhere else is toleration of others that you observe cheating.

BOWMAN: That may explain how the other scandal stayed hidden. The Air Force, 92 missile launch officers were implicated in a cheating scandal. They were caught by chance by investigators looking at other wrongdoing. The Army National Guard, more than 200 officers, including a pair of two-star generals, are under investigation for a kickback scheme.

They were caught through government audits. So scandals in the Navy, Air Force, Army National Guard, hundreds of officers and with one exception, no one came forward. And in the Marine Corps, the top officer General James Amos has called for a reawakening to focus more on discipline, high standards and leadership.

GENERAL JAMES AMOS: Ninety-eight percent of the Marine Corps is absolutely on what I call a moral compass heading of true north.

BOWMAN: Amos says after a decade of war, he's troubled by several incidents, including a video of Marines in Afghanistan urinating on dead Taliban.

AMOS: We're really talking about those 2 percent that are out there on the fringes of our institution. They wear our cloth and they're not living up to our standards.

BOWMAN: So there seems to be something wrong. The question is what to do about it.

MARTIN COOK: I think you see very different kinds of failures going on. The chance there is going to be one size fits all solution are very small.

BOWMAN: That's Martin Cook. He's a professor at the Naval War College and has taught military ethics for more than two decades. Young Air Force and Navy officers cheating on exams, Cook says, could be the result of a lack of leadership or too much pressure to reach a perfect score.

COOK: The more troubling ones are the upper-ranking officers who have presumably been squared away for 20-plus years, doing what they're doing and then are failing in these embarrassing ways involving alcohol, sex, and money. And so there's something going on at that level that I think is new.

BOWMAN: And that's partly because the military brass live apart from society, respected but isolated.

COOK: The sense of, on the one hand, of pride, but maybe a little sense of entitlement, too.

BOWMAN: There are other factors Cook calls worrisome. In wartime, competence may trump character, he says. Some officers may have been promoted too quickly. Their personal flaws ignored in the drive to Baghdad. Cook says that the Naval War College in West Point, mid-level officers are now taking a deeper look at ethics through readings, discussions, even an ethics video game called "The High Ground," something they said was missing as they rose through the ranks.

COOK: The most common remark from the major command course when I spent two hours with them talking about ethics is how come nobody's talked to me about this since the academy?

BOWMAN: The challenge for Hagel's new ethics officer will be how to craft an ethics plan for all those in uniform at all ranks. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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