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Online NewsHour: Ralston Quits as Joint Chiefs Candidate -- June 9, 1997

Ralston Resigns


JUNE 9, 1997


Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston withdrew as a candidate to head the Joint Chiefs of Staff after facing five days of heated criticism over an adulterous affair he engaged in 13 years ago. 

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June 6, 1997:
Shields & Gigot discuss double standards in military sexual misconduct prosecutions.
June 5, 1997:
The NewsHour analyzes the scandal surrounding prosecuting adultery in the military.
May 23, 1997:
Air Force Lt. Kelly Flinn was granted a general discharge rather than court-martialing her on adultery charges.
May 14, 1997:
Military law experts debate whether the military should care about Lt. Flinn's actions.
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Ralston ScandalJIM LEHRER: The General Ralston decision is our lead story tonight. The four-star Air Force general withdrew his candidacy for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff this afternoon. His decision followed five days of uproar over Defense Secretary Cohen’s vow to stand with the Ralston nomination, despite news of an adulterous affair 13 years ago. We get four views now. Retired General Michael Dugan was Air Force chief of staff in 1990. He’s now president of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Retired Air Force Colonel Scott Silliman served as an Air Force lawyer for 25 years. He now runs the Center on Law, Ethics, and National Security at the Duke University Law School.

Susan Barnes is a lawyer, president of Women Acting in our Nation’s Defense, an advocacy group for women in the military. Charles Moskos is a professor of sociology specializing in military issues at Northwestern University. Mr. Moskos, did the general do the right thing?

Ralston ScandalCHARLES MOSKOS, Northwestern University: I think it would have been better had the Secretary’s judgment of last week held up this week. Now, obviously, the pressures on General Ralston were very severe. And he might have to relieve the Secretary of an embarrassing case. But, you know, the case isn’t really that complicated. Adultery is not a stand-alone offense. It’s only when it’s prejudicial to good order and discipline that it is considered a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. It’s a far stretch to say that his behavior was a disruption, and the argument that there’s a double standard involved.

The case of Kelly Flinn had many more factors of operating, insubordination, lying, refusal to change a certain pattern of behavior. I think General Ralston basically could have stayed on, and that would have been a chance to lance the boil and stop these frivolous accusations of adultery.

Ralston ScandalJIM LEHRER: Ms. Barnes, how do you feel about the General’s decision today?

SUSAN BARNES, Women Active in our Nation’s Defense: Well, I disagree with Mr. Moskos. I think it was the right decision. The reason was that this case was no longer about adultery as such. It was really about his ability to lead as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We’ve got a lot of serious problems here that we have to deal with, some of which deal with issues relating to military within which of course is my perspective. And we need to have somebody who is perceived not to be the beneficiary of a double standard, whether there really was one there or not, be able to speak up firmly and with authority and with all the troops behind him on these issues. And I think given the hoo-ha that came on about this, that authority was undermined, and he correctly took the position that his authority--he was deprived of the authority that he needed to go ahead and be the chair. So he’d made the right decision.

JIM LEHRER: Gen. Dugan, he made the right decision?

GENERAL MICHAEL DUGAN (Ret.), Former Air Force Chief of Staff: Well, as the previous speaker said, given the hoo-ha and given the difficulty that the administration currently has, I think in this time frame he made the right decision. The role of military officers and especially senior military officers is not to give problems and not to give difficulties to their civil leaders.

JIM LEHRER: Col. Silliman, was the hoo-ha justified? Did he deserve the heat that this--did the situation draw the right heat?

Ralston ScandalCOLONEL SCOTT SILLIMAN (Ret.), Former Air Force Lawyer: Well, it definitely drew a lot of heat, Jim, and as long as General Ralston was still in the process of being nominated by Secretary Cohen, he was the lightning rod for all the press and the American public to look at this whole issue of at least the appearance of a double standard. So I think General Ralston did the right thing by stepping aside and now letting the Pentagon to take a close look at the issues involved, its policies on adultery and fraternization, and to go about it in an orderly way, which is what’s been needed for some time.

JIM LEHRER: General Dugan, on the hoo-ha question, Secretary Cohen just--he just--did he just misread the situation? Did he just not see this storm coming, or what do you think he’s up to? Did he make a mistake, in other words?

GENERAL MICHAEL DUGAN: I don’t think he made a mistake. I think he did exactly what needed to be done. And he put a mark on the wall. And now he has said he’s going to form a couple of commissions to try to assess the mark. There, indeed, was a feeding frenzy out there of partly informed--partially informed news stories that I think fanned the flames of discontent in the countryside about adultery. The definition of adultery in civil society is different than the definition of adultery in the Military Code of Uniform Justice in the case that Kelly Flinn was judged on.

Ralston ScandalThere are, in fact, three sets of standards on military adultery, all of which are focused on the cohesion of the military unit. I’m not here as an apologist for adultery. I oppose adultery--I don’t oppose adulterers--but in this case or in every case in the military the "don’t ask, don’t tell" philosophy has been applied for years. And if it did not have an impact on performance in the organization, on morale in the organization, in fact, the military did not delve into adultery.

JIM LEHRER: Well, now is that your reading of what the reality has been, Ms. Barnes, up till now?

SUSAN BARNES: That’s my reading, but I have to tell you that I think that there is something else going on here that we need to look at, and that is simply this: Adultery by itself, without impact on a unit for sure. It’s not something that the military should be out looking for or prosecuting, but we have some very serious problems here which relate to gender bias, sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and we need to have our leadership step forward and moral authority.

Military women have been telling me for years now that one of the big problems in getting those issues resolved in the military context has been the reluctance of a leadership, the sort of double standard that commanders aren’t accountable like the soldiers are that keeps them from really looking at these issues. Tailhook was a very good example. Another good example is a report we’ve got coming out by the Navy on gender bias against its pilots, its combat pilots. And there’s always this perception that we have to protect the admirals; we have to protect the generals. They’re not judged by the same standards. If we begin judging them by the same standards and they set the standard and they comply with the same standard that they set for the people under their command, then we believe that on these serious issues that do impact readiness--fraternization, abuse, sexual harassment--we’ll begin to see some progress.

Ralston ScandalGENERAL MICHAEL DUGAN: I think that’s part of the problem here, Jim. In fact, there is abuse in one of the cases. There’s abuse in several of the cases. There’s abuse within the military family at Minot Air Force Base, and the public has not faced up to that. At least some of the press has not faced up to that. When an officer, who, in fact, was a poster child for the Air Force, Kelly Flinn--we trotted out Kelly Flinn whenever dignitaries showed up at Minot, we were proud of Kelly Flinn. She was the first B-52 pilot. She stood alone.

But when she not only engaged in an illicit affair with an individual who’s married to an airman on the base, a very small compact social community but then flaunted the advice she was given about knocking it off. The authority of the military commander was called into question, and he had to do something. He was looked at by the whole community.

JIM LEHRER: But, Ms. Barnes, yes, who was that?

CHARLES MOSKOS: I’d like to add about the double standard issue because that seems to be the court case.

Ralston ScandalJIM LEHRER: Right.

CHARLES MOSKOS: General Longhouser, who was the commander at the Aberdeen Training Center, has also been similarly to be demoted and leave the military in a case apparently a little bit parallel to that of General Ralston, unlike the Kelly Flinn case, which is a far reach to say that did not upset good order and discipline. I think in poor Longhouser’s case this was a Greek tragedy where the fates frowned on him that he was assigned to Aberdeen, which is the center of the most pronounced sex scandals.

But you know, talking to Ms. Barnes’ point, at Tailhook, female officers who misbehaved were not officially reprimanded or punished. If there was a double standard there, it seemed to be that women were getting away with things that the men were being sanctioned for. We have black NCO’s who are being sent to jail for having--and may of them have committed heinous acts but some have committed sexual acts, and they became national pariahs when Kelly Flinn became a national heroine. If it was a double standard, I’d like to know which side it’s on.

JIM LEHRER: Ms. Barnes, would you speak to that, please...

Ralston ScandalSUSAN BARNES: Well, I think there are a lot of double standards going on here, but my point is that when you have a double standard as to preferential treatment between general officers and the troops, then you have a very difficult time getting in and having moral authority and resolving some of these other serious problems.

The fact of Kelly Flinn, the situation where Kelly Flinn--the concern there was not the difference between the treatment of her had General Ralston, at least among military women. The problem was whether or not Kelly Flinn got the usual mentoring and assistance and help at the very early stages, before they put her into the criminal justice system. That was the situation that caused women concern about the way Kelly Flinn was treated. With the respect to the issue of fraternization--

JIM LEHRER: In other words--excuse me.

SUSAN BARNES: --I couldn’t agree more.

JIM LEHRER: Excuse me, Ms. Barnes. What you mean is that when this first situation arose, the women are concerned that she wasn’t taken aside and given--given a Dutch uncle talk, which a man would have done, you think, if the situation had been different?

SUSAN BARNES: Absolutely. The tradition in Naval aviation and also in the Air Force has been when you put $2 million into--and that’s what it costs to train a young pilot--you mentor them. You give them the assistance of your advice. Twenty-six-year-olds sometimes aren’t very smart about some of these things. Certainly we would all acknowledge that she wasn’t. Her contention has been that she didn’t receive that mentoring. She didn’t receive that advice.

They were only too eager to put her into the system and hold her--the justice system--and hold her to a higher standard. And that was the concern with Flinn’s case. With respect to other situations that we’ve seen, we do--we continue to see this issue where commanders who are not comfortable with women going into new roles, those commanders get--holding the women actually to a higher standard, rather than the same standard to which they hold the men.

Ralston ScandalJIM LEHRER: Prof. Moskos, is it possible now that the Ralston case has been set aside, rightly or wrongly, it’s set aside, is it possible now in this environment to create some rules that everybody knows that will affect the generals and a lot of the generals, as much as to the lieutenants and the privates?

CHARLES MOSKOS: And hopefully apply to men and women equally as well. What I do--I do agree with Ms. Barnes on one case. This is an opportunity to reevaluate what’s happening between the genders. We have a situation that has no historical precedent. We have relatively large numbers of women--15 percent total higher--in support roles.

And yet we have rules and regulations that emerge out of the situation which are either there are very few women, or if there were substantial numbers of women, they were separated out into female-only corps like the old Wacks or the old Waves. So we really have to look at fraternization, gender relations in a very broad term. And I hope these panels that the secretary has appointed this week will go in that direction, but it is a new ball game.

JIM LEHRER: A new ball game, Col. Silliman.

Ralston ScandalCOLONEL SCOTT SILLIMAN: Yes, I think it is, Jim, and just two points on this. One, I think Sec. Cohen’s most difficult problem to deal with was not so much with Kelly Flinn or not so much with the overall question of gender issues and services. It was specifically in trying to distinguish his treatment of General Ralston from the treatment that was rendered to Army General Longhouser just two days before. And I think that prompted more criticism than anything else. And these were two general officers, and one then had to look at why did one receive preferential treatment and the other with applause being allowed to retire in the best interest of the army.

I do think that the commissions that are being appointed by Sec. Cohen are extremely important, and one area that needs to be looked at specifically, and so often associated with adultery, is this question of fraternization. Fraternization varies to some degree as far as the policies of each of the services. And there needs to be an overall Department of Defense view on fraternization. And, further, there needs to be some consistency between the service’s treatment of fraternization and their treatment of allowing officer and enlisted marriages and then welcoming that couple back into the service and treating them as best they can to assign them to joint duty positions. And that happens at the stroke of midnight on the wedding night. And that seems to create some inconsistency in personnel policies.

Ralston ScandalJIM LEHRER: Fraternization--just one thing--just make sure that folks that don’t--when you say fraternization, that’s a term of any kind of relationship between an officer and an enlisted person, right?

COLONEL SCOTT SILLIMAN: Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Jim, fraternization is an inappropriate relationship where an officer has that relationship with an enlisted member. And it need not be sexual. It can be platonic, and it can be male to male or female to female. That is a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. But each of the services has by regulation, by policy also proscribed different types of relationships between the grades and between different service members that are also considered inappropriate. The Department of Defense needs to get a handle on that and come out with a uniform policy, set the standard, allow everyone in all the services know exactly the rule that they’ll be held accountable to.

JIM LEHRER: Do you have any trouble with that, General, General Dugan?

GENERAL MICHAEL DUGAN: No. I think there is opportunity for review. Clearly, social mores have changed in society over the years. The decision about how we handle gays and lesbians that was made a couple of years ago was done in an ad hoc fashion. The shape and the size and the complexity of how the forces work now is much more difficult than it was thirty-forty years ago when I was first introduced to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. It needs to be reviewed in a systematic fashion. We need to get rid of the sexual McCarthyism that’s out there and move on.

Ralston ScandalCHARLES MOSKOS: I think this discussion has been very fruitful, but one--two points just to be made relatively quickly--one is consensual sex among equal ranks is not prohibited by military codes today. And that’s something we have to look at too. We might have to think of having no fraternization among equals in certain settings--like deployment--or perhaps even married couples shouldn’t have sex if they’re sent off to Somalia or Bosnia together. And I also think--by the way--the principle of good order and discipline as the cause for prosecuting adultery cases might be one that civilian society in a corporate world, in a university world, might emulate as well.

JIM LEHRER: Ms. Barnes, do you see anything good coming out of all this?

SUSAN BARNES: Not a lot. In all honesty, the Pentagon has used commissions in the past as a way of defusing hot topics, and what they do is they review and study something to death. And then they issue a report, and by now everybody’s bored with it. And the press goes away, and it’s the same old, same old. I think what we really need in this area is just some good, solid command leadership.

We’ve been starting to get it. General Fogelman at the Air Force has been very good on some of these issues. And I wouldn’t call that sexual McCarthyism. I would call it good leadership, enforcing of the rules we’ve got there right now. Quite frankly, I have great confidence that our leadership--if they put their mind to it--can resolve this problem without commissions and without a lot of studying.

JIM LEHRER: Ms. Barnes, gentlemen, thank you all very much.