Gen. Mark Welsh gives his service top marks for personal behavior, saying he is 'very happy with the ethical fabric of the United States Air Force,' despite problems that include a cheating scandal at its nuclear missile sites and a general's drunken binge on an arms control mission. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)
WASHINGTON — The Air Force's top officer gives his service top marks for personal behavior, saying he is "very happy with the ethical fabric of the United States Air Force," despite problems that include a cheating scandal at its nuclear missile sites and a general's drunken binge on an arms control mission.
Gen. Mark Welsh's pronouncement comes as the Pentagon deals with a string of embarrassing incidents — both criminal and ethical — among its brass and lower-ranking officers. The volume of misbehavior prompted Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to name a two-star admiral to "improve professionalism, moral and ethical decision-making" in the military.
"Do we have incidents? Absolutely," Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said in an interview. "Any organization with almost 700,000 people is going to have incidents. But we do not have an epidemic of bad ethical behavior by people across the Air Force. If you look at the numbers, that's simply not the case."
Welsh's comments show he is out of touch with the challenges facing his service, said two members of Congress active in fighting sexual harassment in the military.
It's "deeply troubling that he's 'very happy' with the ethical conduct of his force," given the Air Force's problems with sexual assault, said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who chairs the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on personal.
"You have to wonder when he will finally get it," Gillibrand said. "I hope his cavalier attitude to this crisis is not reflective of his superiors' position."
Since 2010, at least 15 generals and admirals have been disciplined for unacceptable behavior ranging from an Air Force general's drunken binge while leading a delegation to a nuclear conference in Russia to an admiral passing fake poker chips at a casino to adultery and alleged sexual assault. In addition, the Air Force fired nine officers this year and accepted the resignation of a colonel swept up in a cheating scandal involving 100 officers responsible for firing nuclear missiles.
Hagel has not drawn any conclusions from Rear Adm. Margaret Klein's review of military ethics, said Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman.
Hagel "believes the vast majority of servicemen and -women serve with honor and distinction," Kirby said. "But he wants to better understand why some do not and the degree to which we could have institutional problems. That's why he established the position Rear Adm. Klein is filling, and it's why he plans to stay fully engaged on the topic."
Welsh acknowledged that some Air Force officers have acted improperly. He said Incidents are investigated and airmen are disciplined appropriately.
Welsh drew a distinction between ethical lapses and sexual assaults. Sexual assault is "violent criminal behavior," while abusing travel privileges or staying in an expensive hotel are different matters, he said.
Welsh said he sees no systemic problem with ethics in his service.
"No. Never have. I don't think it existed," Welsh said. "There's a big difference between an endemic or systemic problem and bad behavior by individuals. There's a big difference."
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who has championed efforts on the House Armed Services Committee to combat sexual assault in the military, said ethics and sexual crimes cannot be treated separately. Unethical behavior, such as posting sexually explicit images, has contributed to the sexual assault crisis, she said.
"The troubling message is that it's back to business as usual. I hope the general is not intending to send that kind of message," she said. "If he hasn't gotten that message from the House and Senate, he is not reading us properly."