On Friday, however, the Pentagon gave no indication that sweeping reforms were in store, and officials downplayed a recent string of scandals involving senior officers as isolated incidents.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said Panetta believes the misconduct is limited to a “very small number” of senior officers. Little said the defense secretary has also decided to allow the Joint Chiefs of Staff to determine on their own whether further reforms are needed, instead of imposing changes.
The ongoing review will be led by Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
Dempsey gave Panetta a preliminary report a week ago in which he concluded that generals and admirals received adequate ethics training, but that the Defense Department ought to begin that training earlier in their careers.
Dempsey also recommended that the Joint Chiefs take a closer look at the staffing support, travel privileges and other perquisites provided to senior officers.
By the time commanders achieve four-star rank, they often travel in corporate-style jets, with their own cooks, drivers and dozens of aides who perform personal errands.
Some leaders get accustomed to the cushy treatment. After he retired from the Army as a four-star general to become director of the CIA, for instance, David Petraeus instructed aides to hand him bottles of water at precise intervals during his jogging routine and have fresh, sliced pineapple available during business trips before bedtime.
Petraeus, who retired from the Army in 2011 to become CIA director, resigned last month after he admitted to the FBI that he had an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell.
Panetta has not given Dempsey and the Joint Chiefs a deadline for their review. Nor has he “formed an opinion” as to whether they are afforded excessive benefits, Little said.
Asked by reporters if it was a conflict of interest for the top brass to review their own behavior and perks, Little said no. “It is entirely appropriate for [Dempsey] to have the space to look at all these issues,” he said.
Since taking charge in July 2011, Panetta has not fired any generals or admirals, although he recently demoted Gen. William E. “Kip” Ward, the former four-star commander of the military’s Africa Command, after an investigation found he had billed the Pentagon $82,000 for unjustified expenses, including lavish trips with his wife.
In contrast, Panetta’s predecessor, Robert M. Gates, was quick to sack generals and admirals for what he deemed poor performance or a lack of accountability.