WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Friday made his first public comments on a recent military scandal as he condemned the behavior of a senior officer fired last month for allegedly cheating at the poker table.
Hagel criticized the bizarre episode surrounding Vice Adm. Tim Giardina, whom President Barack Obama removed last month from his post as deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command.
Giardina was fired while being investigated by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service for his alleged use of counterfeit poker chips at the Horseshoe Council Bluffs Casino in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
In condemning multiple lapses in conduct by military personnel, Hagel appeared also to be alluding to last month’s separate firing of Maj. Gen. Michael Carey as commander of 20th Air Force, which oversees the Minuteman 3 nuclear missiles that are part of Strategic Command’s arsenal. Officials have said Carey’s removal was tied to alcohol abuse.
Among other lapses first reported by The Associated Press, service members working at a nuclear missile base in Montana failed a safety and security inspection.
Hagel made the comments during a change-of-command ceremony at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, in which Adm. Cecil D. Haney replaced Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler as head of the command that runs U.S. air-, sea- and land-based nuclear weapons.
Without mentioning Giardina by name, Hagel made it clear that he had violated the high ethical standards required of the military and civilian men and women who help operate the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
“Perfection must be the standard for our nuclear forces,” Hagel said. “And Gen. Kehler has vigorously enforced that standard throughout his tenure — reflecting his own background as an (intercontinental ballistic missile) officer. As you all know, this close scrutiny, and the most rigorous evaluations we have within the Department of Defense, have recently exposed some troubling lapses in maintaining this professionalism.”
By praising Kehler’s enforcement of ethical standards, Hagel appeared to be clearing him of any responsibility for his former deputy’s behavior. Haney was head of U.S. Pacific Command before taking on his new assignment, which makes him the first African-American director of STRATCOM since President George H.W. Bush established it in 1992 as a successor to the Strategic Air Command.
Hagel also put the 2,700 people who work at U.S. Strategic Command on notice that breaches in professional or personal conduct will not be tolerated.
“To our STRATCOM professionals, I would say, you have chosen a profession where there is no room for error,” Hagel said. “That’s what the American people expect from you, and you must deliver. Americans trust you with their security. They count on you.”
Hagel drove home the same point in a meeting after the ceremony with junior officers who work at the nuclear arms hub, which is one of three commands among nine altogether that is organized around function rather than geography.
“Secretary Hagel conveyed that Strategic Command is responsible for the military’s most sensitive and important missions and the nation is counting on all personnel, at all levels, to maintain the highest standards of conduct in performing these duties,” said Carl Woog, the Pentagon’s assistant press secretary.
In addition to its critical nuclear mission, Strategic Command in recent years has expanded to oversee U.S. space-based systems and to protect the nation’s crucial infrastructure against hacking or other cyber attacks.
The scandal surrounding the disgraced admiral, who allegedly played cards at a casino just across the Iowa state line from Offutt Air Force Base, is the second to engulf the Navy in recent months.
In the separate Navy scandal, at least three midlevel officers face criminal charges and two admirals are blocked from accessing classified materials because of their ties to a Singapore-based company that services Navy ships in Asia and beyond.
Hagel noted in his speech that stealth bombers operated by Strategic Command, responding to “a series of dangerous provocations” by North Korea, had conducted an unusual aerial sortie in March.
“To assure our Republic of Korea allies, a pair of B-2 bombers assigned to Strategic Command flew a nonstop mission from the United States to South Korea, sending a clear message of American resolve and helping to de-escalate the crisis,” Hagel said.
The nuclear-capable, bat-winged planes soared through the skies over South Korea on March 28 to reassure South Korea and Japan after a series of threats from North Korea.