Why the US military is trying to streamline its misconduct cases

Misconduct investigations can drag on for a long time, but there's no common set of guidelines on what should happen to officers in the meantime – or how they should be punished if found guilty.

Brennan Linsley/AP
The sun rises over the Guantanamo detention facility at dawn, at the Guantanamo Bay US Naval Base, Cuba, in May 2009.

Military leaders are trying to fix the lengthy, inconsistent process for investigating senior officers accused of misconduct, The Associated Press has learned. They are seeking to change a hodgepodge system in which investigations can drag on for years while taxpayers pay six-figure salaries to officers relegated to mid-level administrative posts.

Trust in the disciplinary system "is strained," the chiefs of the four military services said in a memo to Defense Secretary Ash Carter. The memo was obtained by The Associated Press.

The chiefs said they planned to set up a task force to study the issue. It would be created by the end of the year and likely include members of the military, lawmakers, and former investigators or inspectors general. The panel would be charged with providing specific proposals within 10 months.

The memo said the service leaders have concerns about "our internal processes to respond promptly and equitably when there are accusations of misconduct."

There are no real policy guidelines or regulations that govern where the officers go and what jobs they can hold while they wait for investigations to end. Instead, decisions are made by commanders on a case-by-case basis that provides little guarantee of equal treatment across the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, or even for those within the same service.

"We are very frustrated by the amount of time it takes for us to process things," said Lt. Gen. Gary Cheek, director of the Army staff. "In many cases this is in fairness to the individual as well as to run the process through the levels of review. But it can take months to adjudicate some of these and we would greatly prefer that to be weeks, not months."

Eugene Fidell, a lawyer who specializes in military cases and teaches at Yale Law School, said the lengthy process wastes money and is particularly damaging for those ultimately found innocent or not charged. And he said it can treat officers differently, even if they committed the same offense.

"There are people who are hung out to dry, and it's extremely unfair because it's virtually impossible to put Humpty back together again," Mr. Fidell said.

As an example, for the past year, Army Maj. Gen. Ron Lewis has been poring over older military regulations to see what needs updating. His work, in a small suburban Virginia office as a special assistant to the Army's personnel chief, isn't far from the Pentagon. But it's a universe away from his high-powered job as senior military adviser to Carter – a job he lost amid charges of improper behavior and misuse of a government credit card.

He will stay there until the Army decides on his case and determines at what rank he can retire – a decision that could affect his annual income by tens of thousands of dollars.

The Navy, meanwhile, has officers wrapped up in a lengthy, complicated corruption investigation, involving bribes from Malaysian businessman Leonard Glenn Francis, also known as "Fat Leonard." A total of 16 people, including nearly a dozen current and former Navy officials, have been charged so far in the scandal, which has dragged on for about three years.

In some cases, such as Lewis', the investigation is done by the Pentagon's inspector general. Others are handled by the military services' inspectors general, and in cases like "Fat Leonard," the Justice Department drives the probe.

For many Americans, as The Christian Science Monitor's Mark Sappenfeld wrote in 2006, the military-justice system seems "remote and impenetrable."

For their part, experts dismiss the notion that the military system is any more corrupt or ineffective than its civilian counterpart.

But they acknowledge that it faces its own unique challenges – from the culture of silence that can pervade the most tight-knit military units to the lack of any department "district attorney" to follow up on leads. The concerns are longstanding, but with citizens getting a fuller picture of the mechanics of warfare – both on the battlefield and off – there is pressure to ensure that Americans have confidence in their military's means of justice.

There are about a half-dozen active duty senior leaders – mainly two- and three-star officers – who are working in administrative jobs now, waiting for final decisions on misconduct investigations. Over the past five years, there have been nearly 30.

Investigators sometimes have to go back and recreate history, months and years after it occurred and after people and commanders have long moved on. There is concern that stretching out the process makes it difficult to send a clear signal to others that bad behavior won't be tolerated.

Cheek, who is responsible for deciding where Army officers go and what they do while under investigation, said it's important to remember that an accused soldier is innocent until proven guilty and he defended the need to handle incidents on a case-by-case basis.

The investigations are largely done the same way, he said, but "they all have different issues they're working through. We have to match it to the individual circumstances."

He said that "when we have someone who has mistreated people or done something wrong, we hold them appropriately accountable. We may not advertise that or announce it from the mountain tops but every case has a process it has gone through very deliberately."

He noted that the officers under investigation are usually at the lowest point of their lives.

"I am dealing with someone who is enormously distraught, many times incredibly embarrassed by what's happened," Cheek said. "I've got to show frankly some compassion toward them no matter what. We're not going to condone what they've done, but we're going to treat them right."

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