Navy tried to alter report on scandal, officials say Pentagon comptroller to be acting secretary

July 08, 1992|By Eric Schmitt | Eric Schmitt,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Fearful of angering the public, senior Navy officials tried to alter the language of a report concerning the assault of 26 women at a convention of naval aviators last year, apparently to make the incidents seem less offensive, Pentagon officials say.

The office of the naval inspector general prevailed in keeping most of the original wording in the report, but only after contentious debates with superiors, Navy officials said.

Its inquiry was one of two by Navy agencies into the events and subsequent cover-up at last year's convention in Las Vegas of the Tailhook Association, a group of active-duty and retired naval aviators.

Criticism of the Navy's handling of the incident forced Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III to turn over the inquiry to the Pentagon's inspector general shortly before he resigned June 26. Mr. Garrett was replaced yesterday with Sean O'Keefe, the Pentagon comptroller, who will serve as acting Navy secretary for at least the next four months.

Pentagon Inspector General Derek J. Vander Schaaf has said that his inquiry was focusing on what senior Navy officials, including Mr. Garrett and Undersecretary Dan Howard, knew about the incidents, and how they supervised or possibly influenced the investigators' final reports.

"The effect of less explicit language would have been to water down the report," said a senior Navy official close to the naval inspector general's inquiry.

In three separate interviews, Mr. Howard denied influencing the frankness or substance of the inspector general's report, which was made public April 30. Mr. Howard said the only change he suggested was substituting the phrase "obscene drink dispenser" for a more explicit term.

That change was made.

"That was it," said Mr. Howard. "Otherwise, that report was the same I saw in draft as early as February."

In its final version, the report by the naval inspector general, Rear Adm. George W. Davis VI, is a searing criticism of the rowdy behavior that went on in the third-floor hallway and "hospitality suites" at the Las Vegas Hilton for three nights during the annual convention last September.

In the crowded hallways, gangs of drunken aviators surrounded female guests, including 14 fellow naval officers, and shoved them down a gantlet the men formed, grabbing at their breasts and buttocks, and stripping away their clothes.

But Navy investigators said that other senior Navy officials pressured them to make additional changes, fearing that the explicit language could offend the public when the report was made public. Some changes were made; others were not.

"They had problems with references to breasts and genitalia," a Navy official said. "But if we used other words, people on the E-ring would have read it and said, 'Big deal,' " referring to the senior Defense Department officials whose offices line the Pentagon's exterior ring.

Mr. Howard, who automatically became acting Navy secretary when Mr. Garrett resigned, resumed his undersecretary duties yesterday after the appointment of Mr. O'Keefe.

Some lawmakers and Pentagon officials said Mr. Howard was too closely tied to the Tailhook inquiry to be considered for the top job, and it was unclear what role he would play under Mr.

O'Keefe.

It is difficult to sort out exactly how the Navy inquiries were compiled and reviewed. Relations are strained between the naval inspector general's office, which examined the Navy's relationship with the Tailhook Association as well as the conduct of the officers at the convention, and the Naval Investigative Service, which was looking for any criminal conduct at the Las Vegas convention.

Senior Navy officials, sensitive to criticism from lawmakers and senior Pentagon officials about the Navy's handling of the scandal, have given conflicting assessments of the investigations.

For instance, Mr. Davis' report based most of its conclusions on information culled from more than 1,500 interviews conducted by the investigative service. But the investigative service was examining different aspects of the case, so the naval inspector general did not always have the most appropriate or complete information.

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