The Senate Armed Services Committee is pushing the Pentagon to make military ethics a required course at each of the nation's service academies, an idea that grew out of the Iran-contra affair and recent allegations of hazing at the U.S. Naval Academy.
In its report accompanying the defense authorization bill sent to the Senate Friday, the committee said cadets at West Point and the Air Force Academy and midshipmen at Navy are not receiving enough training in "specific real life ethical situations that military officers will face."
To address the problem, the committee recommends that the academies incorporate into their curricula topics such as constitutional limits on military authority, civilian/military relations, the proper response to illegal orders, and the misuse of power to further personal goals.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), a committee member, said lawmakers became concerned about the need for more ethics-based course work last year following the Iran-contra affair. Three of the principal players convicted in the arms-for-hostages scandal -- former National Security Council aide Oliver L. North and former national security advisers John M. Poindexter and Robert C. McFarlane -- were graduates of the Naval Academy.
"When these young people see their heroes, how they responded to orders that were probably illegal and used shredders to destroy evidence, something is clearly wrong. We should not be turning out these kind of officers," Byrd said.
At the committee's request, the Pentagon earlier this year prepared a report detailing what each of the academies is doing to teach professional ethics. The report concluded that the rigid honor and conduct codes to which students are held and a series of required leadership courses provide a strong moral framework for future officers and are the "greatest strength" of the academies.
But Byrd said the Pentagon's study did not sway the committee from its opinion that more needs to be done, particularly in light of the controversy over academic improprieties and the alleged mistreatment of individual midshipmen that rocked the Naval Academy this spring.
That report "fell far short of what we expected by way of a thorough study, which indicated to me that there isn't a great deal of interest over there in pursuing this. . . . We don't get a feeling of real sensitivity to the need," Byrd said.
A recent survey by a Marine officer at the Naval Academy found that 90 percent of midshipmen hold the attitude that "something is only wrong if you get caught," and a new study by the Navy's inspector general that concluded that more than half of the midshipmen think that the honor system is applied inconsistently, has further convinced the committee that its demand is reasonable, Byrd said.
"In my book, it seems that something basic is missing, which goes to the core of this whole thing," Byrd said.
"These young people who graduate from the service academies should have a fundamental understanding of what is right and what is wrong . . . and if we are turning over into officers a lot of men and women who think it's only wrong if you get caught, we are not doing our jobs when a lot of lives hang in the balance," he said.
The committee has asked Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney to report back by Feb. 1 on how the schools are implementing its recommendation. A source said that date was selected to ensure the academies have something in place by the spring semester of the next academic year, although Cheney would not be required to follow the committee's suggestion since it is not part of the defense spending bill.
Naval Academy officials said yesterday they could not comment on the committee's recommendation because they had not seen it. Byrd said he expects it to meet with some resistance from the Pentagon based on the "halfhearted" response the committee received to its request last year for a preliminary report.
In a related matter, the committee has also asked the secretary of the Navy to give the Naval Academy's civilian faculty a "consulting role" in selecting and reappointing the school's academic dean. Some of Navy's faculty members have been at odds with the current academic dean, Robert Shapiro, since last spirng, when Shapiro removed the chairman of the electrical engineering department after the chairman refused to raise grades in two courses.