Other recent cases have ranged from allegations of administrative improprieties to a lurid rape case that prompted the Pentagon to yank a brigadier general from a key post in southern Afghanistan this spring.
The Defense Department’s inspector general says the number of substantiated allegations of wrongdoing by senior officers has risen steadily in recent years, prompting the office to hire several new investigators.
The scandals have stunned the military establishment and shocked a public accustomed, after 11 years of war, to venerating those who serve. Panetta was frank in acknowledging that the malfeasance of top brass could be demoralizing for troops and civilians.
“As has happened recently, when lapses occur, they have the potential to erode public confidence in our leadership,” Panetta wrote in a directive to Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has been asked to deliver a preliminary report by the end of the month. “Worse, they can be detrimental to the execution of our mission to defend the American people.”
The effort could shed light on whether the multiple deployments in a decade of war, which have exacted a well-documented toll on an all-volunteer force, also are afflicting those in command.
Some military officers suggest that the problem is systemic, part of a long-established double standard of punishment.
“There’s a set of rules for generals and a set of rules for everyone else when it comes to punishment,” said an Army officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak critically about the initiative. “No one in their right mind believes you have to remind general officers to obey the law or not have adulterous affairs.”
Testimony in the rape case of Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, the former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, echoed that view. According to a witness who testified this month at a hearing that will determine whether the general is court-martialed, Sinclair was dismissive when challenged about making a demeaning remark about women.
“I’m a general,” Sinclair said, the witness testified. “I’ll do whatever the [expletive] I want.”
The review, which Panetta announced after arriving in Thailand on the second stop of an Asia trip, comes amid questions over whether the Pentagon under his stewardship is doing enough to hold leaders accountable. Panetta has said little in public about the recent cases and hasn’t fired any commanders since taking charge in July 2011. In contrast, his predecessor, Robert M. Gates, was quick to sack generals and admirals for what he deemed poor performance or a lack of accountability.