AN outcry over reported sex abuse at a raucous aviators' convention last year reached the military's highest echelons with the resignation of Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III.
In keeping with Navy tradition that a ship's captain accepts responsibility for all that occurs under his command, the Navy's top civilian leader stepped down Friday.
In a letter of resignation to President Bush, Mr. Garrett said he took full responsibility for the "leadership failure which allowed the egregious conduct at the Tailhook [convention] to occur in the first instance." He referred to the behavior of dozens of drunken Navy and Marine Corps aviators at the Las Vegas convention of the Tailhook Association.
At least 26 women - half of them Navy officers - said they were sexually assaulted while being pushed down a gantlet of drunken aviators in a hotel hallway during the convention Sept. 5-7, 1991.
The Navy lieutenant who first spurred the investigation by coming forward to complain about her mistreatment at the convention, Paula Coughlin, said Friday in an interview that those guilty of committing the sexual assaults should admit their guilt.
President Bush, upset by the reported sexual misconduct at a Navy aviators' convention, summoned Lt. Coughlin to the White House and personally assured her of a full investigation, a spokesman said Saturday.
Garrett's resignation came a week after he acknowledged he had been present in one of the hospitality suites near where the alleged abuse occurred, but that he saw no improper conduct. Amid charges of a possible cover-up, Garrett was forced to request an independent probe after Navy investigators failed initially to include an affidavit alleging he had been in the area.
In a scathing report issued in April, the Navy's inspector general charged that the service's senior leadership had known for years about raucous behavior at the annual convention but had done nothing to stop it.
In his resignation letter, Garrett insisted he "neither saw nor engaged in any offensive conduct" at the gathering of the Tailhook Association, which takes its name from the wire that snags aircraft landing on carrier decks.
President Bush accepted the resignation in a statement emphasizing that "sexual harassment will not be tolerated."
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, in a separate statement, praised Garrett's "courage and loyalty to the US Navy" but also declared, "There can be no tolerance of sexual harassment in the armed forces."
"I'm saddened for the US Navy," said Sen. John Warner of Virginia, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and himself a former Navy secretary. "The defense secretary is moving expeditiously to contain this problem."