WASHINGTON — A flood of misconduct cases involving generals and admirals has created deep concern at the Pentagon about ethical and moral shortcomings among senior military officers and prompted new steps to tighten rules, increase inspections and weed out offenders, officials said.
The most recent cases — a Navy admiral under investigation for using counterfeit gambling chips and an Air Force general in charge of nuclear-tipped missiles relieved for drunkenness off duty — follow a long list of officer wrongdoings over the last year. The offenses include ethical lapses and allegations of criminal violations, including sexual assault.
Senior officers who have examined the problem say that no evidence suggests widespread misconduct among the nearly 1,000 generals and admirals in the armed forces. The number of cases in which allegations of misconduct are substantiated remains low and offenders are punished when identified, they say.
“We do not have an epidemic of flag-officer misconduct in the United States Navy,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Navy’s top spokesman, said in comments echoed by senior officers in other services.
But officials acknowledge that a steady stream of revelations, some involving decorated combat officers, have the potential to damage public confidence in an institution that portrays itself as abiding by the highest standards of conduct. That could harm recruiting, morale in the ranks and public support for the military.
Although detailed statistics on officer misconduct are not available, an annual accounting of investigations by the Pentagon’s inspector general shows a growing number of cases, many in the Army. The numbers cover not just senior officers but also high-level civilians who work for the Defense Department.
In fiscal year 2013, which ended in September, 95 out of 250 allegations of misconduct investigated were found to be “substantiated,” including 26 in the Army, three in the Navy, 10 in the Air Force and none in the Marine Corps. Similar numbers were investigated and substantiated in 2012.
Those numbers are considerably higher than in 2011, when 125 senior officers and officials were investigated and only 18 cases were substantiated.
Pentagon officials appear increasingly worried about the impact of the revelations, but there is also a reluctance to explore whether the cases are anything more than a temporary blip, several officials said, speaking anonymously while discussing personnel issues.
In November, then-Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta ordered an internal review of senior officer conduct after Gen. William “Kip” Ward, an Army four-star general who was head of Africa Command, was demoted and forced into retirement. A Defense Department investigation found he had traveled on personal business at taxpayer expense, stayed at lavish resorts and accepted Broadway show tickets from a contractor.
The review found that most of the major cases of alleged misconduct involved generals and admirals failing to abide by ethics rules governing gifts, travel and use of official funds, not criminal conduct, officers familiar with the findings said.
Senior commanders have long enjoyed perks such as nice houses and large staffs, but in the last decade, as the Pentagon budget expanded, many grew accustomed to even more lavish benefits, including aircraft at their disposals, large entourages and treatment befitting heads of state when they traveled abroad, some officers conceded.
But the review, which was carried out by the staff of Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, concluded that the spate of disciplinary cases, even though not widespread, did present at least a perception problem for the military, the officials said.
In the most recent cases, Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, who oversees 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles at three locations, was fired this month for “personal misbehavior” that involved alcohol, according to a U.S. official. The Air Force is investigating to determine whether he will be demoted and forced to retire.
Navy Vice Adm. Tim Giardina, the second-in-charge of nuclear forces at U.S. Strategic Command, was suspended and demoted to two-star rank in early October because of a criminal investigation into whether he passed or sold counterfeit gambling chips used at an Iowa casino, according to another U.S. official familiar with the case. He remains under investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigation Command.
Meanwhile, the court-martial of Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair is scheduled to begin in January on charges of sexual misconduct with a subordinate. Sinclair has pleaded not guilty.
The case involving retired Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, who had served as top commander in Iraq and Afghanistan during the height of the U.S. involvement in both wars, was perhaps the most damaging to the military’s reputation even though it came to light after he had retired. Petraeus admitted in November to an affair with his biographer, a former Army officer, and resigned as head of the CIA.
The affairs also led to an investigation into Marine Gen. John Allen, who followed Petraeus as commander in Afghanistan, over his relationship with a Tampa, Fla., socialite. Allen was later cleared of wrongdoing by the Pentagon inspector general.
Some officers who have examined the apparent increase in misconduct allegations say that the demands of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last dozen years may have contributed to a relaxation of ethical and professional standards. Some officers may have won promotions who might not have been chosen as generals and admirals during peacetime, they said.
“What I think is happening is that in a combat setting where you value competence, sometimes character got a lower level of emphasis” in promotion decisions, said a senior military official involved in examining the recent misconduct cases.
Lt. Col. Alayne Conway, an Army spokeswoman, said, “There are hundreds of general officers in the Army, and we are committed to dealing appropriately with the small handful that do not adhere to Army policy or standards of conduct.”
As a result of the review conducted by his staff, Dempsey has ordered special inspection teams to visit each top command over the next year, looking for indications that commanders are misusing travel funds, accepting improper gifts or otherwise failing to live up to the military’s standards.
He has also ordered a rewriting of ethics rules and better training, and has called for each service to perform regular reviews of senior commanders including a “360-degree performance evaluation” that solicits input from subordinates. Each of the military services retains authority over disciplining its officers.
But “the biggest problem may be getting senior officers to admit that there is a problem with the behavior of senior officers,” one military official said.
In one case that recently came to light, Army Maj. Gen Joseph Fil was demoted and forced to retire after receiving a Mont Blanc pen and a leather briefcase from a South Korean citizen while he was commanding U.S. troops there. While the investigation was going on, Fil was a nominee to take over as the Army inspector general.