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Military Reiterates Ban on 'Contemptuous Words' Against President

By Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 21, 1998; Page A06

Marine Corps and Air Force officials recently distributed memos reminding military personnel that they are forbidden by the military code of justice from using "contemptuous words" to describe the president and other civilian leaders.

President Clinton's acknowledgment of his sexual relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky has struck a particular chord of outrage in the military, where some members have compared their commander-in-chief's behavior and his expectation of forgiveness to a legal code that would lead to their court-martials for the same offenses.

The discussions have so far been confined mostly to hallways and private conversations. But recently they have surfaced in ways that have disturbed officials.

Last week Marine Corps assistant commandant Gen. Terrence Dake sent a memo to officers reminding them of the law after the Wall Street Journal published an item saying a group of Marines was circulating a petition calling for Clinton's resignation.

"You must emphatically discourage any such actions," Dake wrote. "As a Corps we must remain aloof of the distractions which will surely continue over the next months . . . We are not politicians. We are not a Corps of lawyers." Marine officials said they have subsequently been unable to verify the existence of such a petition.

Also recently, a letter from a military lawyer to the Warren Sentinel, a newspaper at the F. E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, was widely distributed in Air Force circles. It explained that Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice expressly prohibits any officer from using "contemptuous words" against the president.

The law was written to promote good order and discipline among the armed forces, whose members must take orders from their superior civilian authorities. Violators can be dismissed or jailed for a year and face forfeiture of their pay.

Jokes about the president also could fall into this category, as can other comments that attribute the quality of "meanness, disreputableness or worthlessness" to the president. The law also applies to comments about the vice president, defense secretary, members of Congress and other leading civilians.

In recent days, two former and one current military officers have written items for prominent publications condemning Clinton. On Oct. 12 the Army Times, an independent newspaper, ran a letter by Army Col. John R. Baer suggesting that the Army make it optional for service members to accept a "Certificate of Appreciation" signed by Clinton that is routinely given to retiring members. It should be optional, he wrote, "so as not to embarrass soldiers."

Three weeks ago, James R. McDonough, who led U.S. troops in Bosnia in 1995 and now works at the White House Office of National Drug Policy, wrote in a letter published in the Wall Street Journal that he was offended by the assertion in Kenneth W. Starr's report that Lewinsky performed oral sex on Clinton while he was discussing Bosnia with a member of Congress on the telephone. The juxtaposition "smacks of callous indifference, sophomoric arrogance and reckless disregard of the sanctity of U.S. soldiers' lives," he wrote.

On Monday, the Army Times published a letter by Maj. Shane Sellers, a 20-year Marine veteran. "Reading the Constitution leads one to think that President Clinton's conduct would warrant impeachment hearings," he wrote. ". . . One should call an adulterous liar exactly what he is -- a criminal."

The Marines have promised to "investigate" the Sellers matter, but officials said it is unlikely he will receive more than a verbal reprimand.

Top Pentagon officials, when asked about the effect the scandal has had on troop morale and Pentagon business, have asserted that Clinton's troubles have had no effect. Service members are preoccupied with other matters, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon said yesterday. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen does not hear about the scandal on his trips to bases or meetings with leaders, Bacon said.

"He has not seen this as an issue of concern among the troops, and it's not something that has been raised to him as an issue of concern," Bacon said.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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