Naval officers face court for sexual assault: Pentagon report says aviators molested dozens of women at Tailhook convention

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THE DISGRACE inflicted on the US Navy by allegations of mass sexual misconduct at a naval aviators' conference deepened yesterday after a Pentagon report suggested that it involved greater numbers than thought.

In its report on the affair, the Pentagon said no fewer than 117 senior officers indulged in offensive and possibly criminal behaviour at the so-called Tailhook Convention of naval and marine aviators at the Las Vegas Hilton in September 1991.

Moreover, the document, compiled by the Pentagon's independent inspector-general, reveals that 83 women and seven men were assaulted during the three nights of the gathering - a much higher figure than was recorded in the Navy's own report into the affair, released last year.

During the convention, women - naval personnel and civilians - were forced to run the gauntlet down hotel corridors while officers pawed them. Hospitality suites in the hotel featured strippers, screenings of pornographic films and bars with obscene drinks dispensers.

The report suggests that during the three evenings, the convention degenerated into a lewd and offensive orgy, in which some became unwilling participants. 'Many attendees viewed the annual conference as a type of 'free-fire zone' wherein they could act indiscriminately without fear of censure or retribution in matters of sexual conduct or drunkenness,' it said. 'Witnesses described incidents in which couples had consensual sexual intercourse or oral sex in the suites, with other persons watching. Other witnesses observed oral sex or sexual intercourse in the pool patio area or near the tennis courts.'

Most devastating for the Navy, the Pentagon spells out the responsibility of the most senior officers at the convention - including 33 admirals - in failing either to prevent the misconduct or to act quickly to report it.

'Some of the Navy's most senior officers were knowledgeable as to the excesses practised at Tailhook 91 and by their inaction, those officers served to condone and even encourage the type of behaviour that occurred there,' the report stated.

None of the names of those implicated were released by the Pentagon; however, they are thought to include some of the admirals and many flag officers - who make up the sub-admiral ranks - including captains.

Although this is the Pentagon's last word on what happened at the Hilton, the repercussions of the report are certain to be felt for months ahead. A panel of senior Marine and naval officers will now be responsible for determining what disciplinary action will be taken against the 117 officers.

Of those implicated, the report says, 23 have been determined to have participated in 'indecent assaults' and an additional 23 in 'indecent exposure'. Those considered by the disciplinary committee to be guilty of misconduct of a criminal nature are certain to face courts martial.

The inch-thick report includes photographs of events at the Tailhook meeting, named after the hook that stops a plane when it lands on an aircraft carrier. The pictures, in which faces have been blacked out, include one of a naked women straddling the face of an officer. Another features a mural of a rhinoceros to which a large phallus had been attached, for use as a drinks dispenser.

The report says other officers may be referred for disciplinary action as investigations continue. 'It should be noted that the number of individuals involved in all types of misconduct or other types of inappropriate behaviour was more widespread than these figures would suggest.'

The scandal has haunted the Navy since it first came to light early last year. One of its first victims was President Bush's Secretary of the Navy, Lawrence Garrett, who was forced to resign last autumn.

Yesterday, the acting Secterary and chief naval officer, Admiral Frank Kelso, insisted that no such event could take place again. He said he hoped that the shock of the Tailhook affair would help the Navy correct attitudes and instil a new culture respectful of women.

'We sincerely regret that this incident brought such discredit on our entire service,' the sombre-faced admiral said. 'This is a watershed event that has brought about cultural change. Something like Tailhook is not going to happen again.'

A feature of the investigations was the consistent attempts by naval officers to withhold information to protect colleagues. There was also a widespread view among participants that what happened at Tailhook did not need to be taken seriously. The report said 50 officers were found to have lied in their original statements.

Admiral Kelso was adamant that steps were being taken within the Navy to ensure a change in attitudes towards women. These included special training at all ranks and much tougher procedures for disciplining servicemen found guilty of sexual misconduct or harassment.