Panetta orders zipper check at Pentagon

Faced with a rash of scandals among the top ranks of the military — not all of them sexual in nature, either — Leon Panetta has ordered a review of personnel and practices to see why ethical standards appear to have slipped at the Department of Defense.  The Pentagon insisted that this review had been planned even before the latest alleged  peccadilloes of David Petraeus and others, but it does seem to be taking on a special urgency this month:

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has ordered the Pentagon to find out why so many generals and admirals have become embroiled in legal and ethical problems, a trend exacerbated by recent investigations of two of the military’s best-known commanders.

The Pentagon disclosed Panetta’s directive on Thursday after he arrived in Thailand as part of a visit to Asia. But aides insisted that he had been considering the review for some time and that it was not prompted by revelations that the FBI has been investigating former CIA director David H. Petraeus, a retired Army general, and Marine Gen. John R. Allen, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. …

The deputy commander of the storied 82nd Airborne Division was relieved in May in Afghanistan and is now facing criminal charges that he sexually assaulted or engaged in adultery with five women. Last month, the commander of an aircraft carrier strike group in the Persian Gulf was relieved for “inappropriate leadership judgment” and is under investigation by the Navy’s inspector general.

On Tuesday, Panetta demoted the former four-star commander of the military’s Africa Command and ordered him to repay $82,000 for taking lavish or unauthorized trips with his wife.

Another inspector general probe this fall castigated the three-star commander of the Missile Defense Agency for creating a toxic work environment, describing his style as “management by blowtorch and pliers.”

I’d make a joke about locking the barn door, but that’s another euphemism for a different kind of zipper problem.  As for the current zipper problems, Panetta said yesterday that the two scandals do not appear to involve any other military personnel — just the man in charge of America’s war efforts in Afghanistan.

Why so many problems?  The Post’s Craig Whitlock notes that Panetta has yet to fire any high-ranking commander for ethics issues, while his predecessor Robert Gates took a harder line.  The Pentagon’s response is that none of the situations he’s seen yet warranted firings.  That may be true — and Gates’ terminations apparently didn’t send the intended message either, at least not effectively enough.

The problem is acute enough that Joint Chiefs chair General Martin Dempsey got the assignment personally from Panetta, and a due date of December 1st.  Dempsey has his hands full with the Allen probe, which he said could take “months,” but told the American Forces Press Service that he had confidence in Allen’s ability to remain focused on his mission both in Afghanistan and later at NATO, assuming that the probe found no wrongdoing.

Dempsey’s new task from Panetta might be more difficult — challenging an environment where high ethics are not just expected but demanded to find out why so many have fallen short of those expectations.  That’s a tall order for just a two-week time frame.  It’s entirely necessary, though, and let’s hope Dempsey succeeds in a manner that bolsters morale while finding ways to provide support for better judgment than has been shown in recent incidents.

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