Senate panel to review controversial Navy promotion Lawmakers question why officer blamed for mishap kept rear admiral rank

March 18, 1998|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Senate Armed Services Committee will review the Pentagon's decision to keep intact the promotion of a Navy officer who commanded an aircraft carrier that was blamed for a 1996 collision that caused $10 million damage.

Committee staff members asked the Navy Department late last week for its reports on the incident involving the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and the cruiser USS Leyte Gulf.

The staff members also asked the Navy Department to explain why it chose to retain Rear Adm. Ronald L. Christenson at his current rank, said a spokesman.

As commanding officer of the carrier, Christenson, then a captain, was held responsible for the collision and received a punitive letter of reprimand -- a step that usually sabotages any pending promotion. But Christenson was later awarded his admiral's star.

"There's a conflict and a controversy here, and they want to look at it," said John DeCrosta, a committee spokesman, cautioning that members were not necessarily opposed to the Pentagon's decision to retain Christenson as a rear admiral.

"I don't know if there's anything more than they're exercising their oversight role," DeCrosta said.

The request came after an article in The Sun detailed divisions among top Navy officials about whether Christenson's promotion should be revoked.

Christenson was eligible for promotion to rear admiral two weeks before the Roosevelt backed into the Leyte Gulf on Oct. 14, 1996, during a training exercise off Cape Hatteras, N.C.

Although Christenson was to assume that rank after his command of the Roosevelt had ended, he signed promotion papers in the meantime that effectively locked him into the rank.

A month later, Christenson received a letter of reprimand, as did two officers aboard the Leyte Gulf, who, investigators said, should have done more to avoid the oncoming carrier. Christenson was asleep in his bunk during the early morning accident.

Adm. J. Paul Reason, commander of the Atlantic fleet, in his own review, concluded that Christenson bore the greatest responsibility because he was the senior officer in charge of the exercise.

Christenson, a 1969 Naval Academy graduate, could be removed only if President Clinton decided to revoke the promotion before the admiral's probationary period ends April 1. Navy Secretary John H. Dalton favored that move, saying Christenson "did not meet the high standards of professional competence."

But Dalton was opposed by Adm. Jay L. Johnson, chief of naval operations, who pointed to Christenson's otherwise stellar career. And Defense Secretary William S. Cohen rebuffed Dalton's recommendation.

Christenson is now at the Pentagon, overseeing the Navy's aircraft carrier program.

Pub Date: 3/18/98

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