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Pentagon restates zero-tolerance pledge for sexual misbehavior following report

Dana White, the assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs, speaks at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 12, 2017. White said Thursday, Oct. 26, that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis "has been very clear that he has zero tolerance for harassment and misconduct."

JETTE CARR/U.S. AIR FORCE

By TOM VANDEN BROOK | USA Today | Published: October 27, 2017

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — Despite more than 500 cases of serious misconduct – many involving sexual harassment – among its most senior officers and officials over the last four years, the Pentagon maintained Thursday that it has "zero tolerance" for such behavior.

Pentagon officials for decades have used the term zero tolerance after eruptions of scandals involving sexual assault and harassment. Yet in each of the last four years, military investigators have documented at least 100 instances of misbehavior among generals, admirals and senior civilians, including instances of sexual assault and harassment.

Recent cases include an Air National Guard one-star general who sexually harassed three subordinates, playing with the hair of one woman and kissing her, touching another's legs and grabbing the waist of a third woman and inviting her to his room, according to a Pentagon Inspector General report. In another instance, a Navy admiral was reprimanded for looking at pornography on his government computer.

A USA TODAY investigation this week revealed that from 2013 through 2016 that senior officers and officials had been found to have committed 508 instances of misbehavior, about half of them for personal misconduct and ethical violations. The Pentagon keeps a running tally, but it does not study why the trends persist, the paper found. The military also closed an office tasked by former Defense secretary Chuck Hagel to determine the scope of the problem without reaching conclusions.

The military's problems with sexual harassment coincide with scandals in Hollywood, industry and the media.

Despite those findings and the continuing stream of substantiated misbehavior among senior officials, Pentagon Press Secretary Dana White said Thursday that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis "has been very clear that he has zero tolerance for harassment and misconduct."

White acknowledged the problems persist, and that the military could improve, but said that cases are investigated and perpetrators punished.

"Again, we have a zero tolerance about it," White said. "But then you also find that a lot of times people have also been held accountable for their actions."

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand scoffed at the zero-tolerance pledge, saying the Pentagon "can't be trusted to police itself." Gillibrand, a New York Democrat and member of the Armed Services Committee, renewed her call for the military to create a separate corps of prosecutors to handle sex crimes rather than continuing to allow military commanders the discretion over the cases.

Since at least 1992, Pentagon officials have evoked the zero-tolerance standard. That came in the wake of the Navy's Tailhook scandal in which Navy pilots at a convention in Las Vegas assaulted dozens of women. Hagel himself used the phrase himself in 2013 after the Pentagon had reported a 30% spike in reports of unwanted sexual contact.

"Every Secretary of Defense since Dick Cheney over 20 years ago has claimed to have zero tolerance for sexual assault in the military," Gillibrand said in a statement to USA TODAY.

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