US Navy shrugs off its worst sex scandal

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The Independent Online
TWO and a half years after the notorious 1991 Tailhook convention in Las Vegas, the US Navy has effectively closed the books on its worst sex scandal by gently pushing the service's top uniformed officer into early retirement, insisting all the while he had done nothing wrong.

Admiral Frank Kelso, Chief of Naval Operations, announced yesterday that he would retire in April, two months earlier than planned, after a blistering report from a Navy judge last week which accused the admiral of interfering with investigations into the debauched gathering of Navy and Marines pilots at which 83 women claim to have been sexually harassed and assaulted.

That however was not how the Pentagon's top brass chose to see the affair's denouement. Both the Defense Secretary, William Perry, and the Navy Secretary, John Dalton, spoke fulsomely of Admiral Kelso's 'integrity and honour', claiming there was no evidence that he had either known about what happened at the aviators' drunken revels or tried to stage a cover-up.

Yesterday's finale typifies a scandal long on moralising but short on punishment, where the Navy has subtly tried to protect its own - and in the main succeeded. Although two senior officials were replaced and 60 officers disciplined internally, not one of the 140 individual cases to have been investigated ended in conviction.

The last of them collapsed last week with the dismissal of charges against two of Admiral Kelso's subordinates. Speaking to reporters yesterday, the admiral claimed he had become a 'lightning-rod' for Tailhook, and insisted anew he had done nothing wrong. He said he took the step to resign on his own and that he had not been asked to do so by Mr Perry or Mr Dalton.

Meanwhile, Navy Lieutenant Paula Coughlin, the first woman to bring charges, resigned this month, saying the abuse she had suffered at the Las Vegas Hilton, and the 'covert attacks' thereafter, had made it impossible for her to continue in the Navy. But her ordeal and that of others like her may not have been in vain. Embarrassment at Tailhook has helped force the US military to allow women closer to frontline action than ever before.

Pentagon officials said last night that Mr Perry would recommend that President Clinton nominate Jeremy Boorda, commander of Nato's southern flank and now in charge of the potential alliance bombing campaign in Bosnia, to succeed Admiral Kelso.