Defense Secretary Sends Stern Message About Accountability

By Thomas E. Ricks and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 3, 2007

Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey was traveling outside Washington yesterday when he was notified that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, his boss, wanted to see him as soon as possible.

By the end of the day, Harvey had returned from a trip to Fort Benning, Ga., and was out of a job -- fired because of the scandal over the poor treatment of outpatient soldiers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He was the second Army secretary in a row to be relieved.

"The problems at Walter Reed appear to be problems of leadership," Gates said in a brief statement delivered at the Pentagon just after he met with Harvey.

Harvey's firing sent a strong message across the top of the military establishment that the new Pentagon chief, though a newcomer to the world of defense, would not be a passive manager and would hold senior leaders accountable for their actions. "There's a new boss in town, and the message is 'You guys need to do your job right,' " a Defense Department official said yesterday.

Indeed, in an interview shortly after Gates's statement, Harvey said: "We let the soldiers down. I'm the head of the Army. What can I say?"

The move was a "sudden, emotional decision on the parts of both secretaries," an Army official said, though Harvey maintained that it was his own decision to step down.

Pentagon officials said Gates was angry that as the scandal unfolded, the Army relieved the commander of Walter Reed, Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, who had been in that job for only about half a year, and replaced him with Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, the Army surgeon general, who had previously commanded Walter Reed and was said by soldiers, their families and veterans' advocates to have long been aware of problems at the medical complex.

Harvey defended his decision to temporarily appoint Kiley as Walter Reed's commander. He said Kiley called him a few days ago and lambasted The Washington Post's series on the medical center. "He called me and said, 'I'm willing to defend myself. . . . I want to have an opportunity to defend myself, and it was wrong and it was yellow journalism at its worst, and I plan on doing it. Trust me.' " Harvey said. "I said, 'Okay, Kevin.' " Harvey added that Kiley was to be in the job only about a week until they could make a "thoughtful decision on who should replace him."

The Army's appointment of Kiley also set up a potentially embarrassing situation next week, when the general was scheduled to testify before two Senate committees about the Walter Reed situation. Yesterday, the Army appointed Maj. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker as the new Walter Reed commander.

The White House also made it clear to the Pentagon that the scandal needed to be addressed more swiftly and vigorously than the Army appeared to be doing, defense officials said.

At a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Tuesday, Gates said he was "very concerned" about the situation at Walter Reed and wanted to make clear that "accountability on this will not be limited to a couple of [noncommissioned officers] and a junior officer once we know the facts."

While Gates did not explicitly mention his predecessor, the new defense secretary's approach to the problem has contrasted with the way Donald H. Rumsfeld's Pentagon handled allegations of wrongdoing. In the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, Pentagon officials were quick to point the finger at low-ranking soldiers, and only one officer who worked at the prison has faced court proceedings, even after numerous investigations found high-level problems with interrogation policies.

Gates said yesterday that "some in the Army have not adequately appreciated the seriousness" of the Walter Reed issue.

Former Army secretary Thomas E. White, who was fired by Rumsfeld in April 2003, said that the country being at war creates unique challenges for the service secretaries, especially the secretary of the Army. "The treatment of casualties is an extremely emotional issue, and there is a tremendous sense that these people should be well treated for the service they've rendered their country," White said. "And when they're not, that's an unacceptable situation."

Staff writers Dana Priest and Josh White contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company