Pentagon Alerted to Trouble in Ranks

Reports over a decade have warned of recruits with criminal pasts and of the violent behavior of some active-duty service members.

By Ken Silverstein

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

July 1, 2004

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon was warned repeatedly going back a decade that it was accepting military recruits with criminal histories and was too lenient with those already in uniform who exhibited violent or other troubling behavior.

Six studies prepared over 10 years by an outside expert at the Pentagon's request found that too little was being done to discipline lawbreakers in uniform or even identify problem recruits.

A 1998 study estimated that one-third of military recruits had arrest records. A 1995 report found that one out of four Army career enlisted personnel had committed one or more criminal offenses while on active duty. Yet many were allowed to reenlist or received promotions. Some received good-conduct medals or held top secret security clearances, the research found.

The 1995 study cited the case of one soldier who was promoted to sergeant despite a record of behavior that included multiple assaults, drunk and disorderly conduct, property destruction and obstructio n of justice.

As recently as last year, only a month before some of the worst abuses of Iraqi detainees occurred at Abu Ghraib prison, one of the reports said some troops were in positions "where destructive acts could have the most serious consequences."

"An immediate problem faced by Defense is that there are military personnel with pre-service and in-service records that clearly establish a pattern of substandard behavior," the 2003 report said.

"These individuals constitute a high-risk group for destructive behavior and need to be identified."

The September 2003 study, titled "Reducing the Threat of Destructive Behavior by Military Personnel" and released to The Times with the Pentagon's permission, was written by Eli S. Flyer, a former senior analyst at the Defense Department and a longtime Pentagon consultant.

It examined recruiting of active-duty troops and misconduct by uniformed personnel once they entered the armed forces. Military reservists undergo the same screening process as active-duty troops, Flyer said.

Although the Pentagon adopted some new procedures, they were not adequate, Flyer's most recent report said. The military services have resisted improving screening procedures because that "would reduce applicant supply," the 2003 report said, alluding to problems some services have had in recent years meeting recruitment goals.

"Critically important, development of applicant screening procedures to identify individuals with behavior disorders has lagged, contributing to suitability problems and destructive acts occurring later during active duty," the report said.

Flyer's most recent study said steps needed to be taken to reduce the "wide range of destructive acts committed by military personnel," including sabotage, serial murder and rape.

The Army recently announced that it had opened investigations into at least 91 cases of possible misconduct by U.S. military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to violent crim es committed against detainees, the charges include assaults and thefts committed against civilians.

"One would hope Defense is doing a thorough investigation of their backgrounds," Flyer said.

Flyer said Bill Carr, the Pentagon's acting deputy undersecretary for military personnel policy, requested last September's report. Carr was not available for an interview.

Curtis Gilroy, who oversees military recruiting as director of the Pentagon's office of accession policy, said the screening process for recruits was "pretty good" but acknowledged some shortcomings.

It is hard to "pick out all the bad apples," Gilroy said, "but we are striving to improve the system and are doing so — from recruiters to the military entrance processing stations to the initial training sites. We are taking screening very seriously and will be more vigilant at all steps of the recruiting and accession process."

One measure of the overall problem is provided by the record of a special Defen se Department screening program called the Personnel Reliability Program, or PRP, which is designed to ensure that only persons of sound character were assigned to duty involving nuclear weapons. Between 1987 and 1990, three individuals approved by the PRP committed murders while on active duty.

In a 1986 case, the Navy gave a PRP clearance to a man known to be a suspect in an unsolved murder. Three years later, when the man was a fire control technician on a nuclear submarine, he was charged in the murder of an elderly couple while off duty. He was later convicted.

In an interview, Flyer said it was too early to know if the problems he found could have contributed to the situation at Abu Ghraib or to other misconduct cases that came to light in Iraq and Afghanistan, although at least two cases involved veterans with checkered backgrounds.

Most of the names of those being investigated have not been released, but in at least two high-profile cases men who are charged with committing cri mes had entered the military despite previous problems.

Cpl. Charles A. Graner Jr., an accused ringleader in the abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib, served in the Gulf War in a Marine reserve unit. He reenlisted in the Army in 2001, joining a reserve unit at a time when allegations of violent behavior had been made against him in two civil court proceedings. His wife alleged in divorce proceedings in 2000 that he beat her, and she obtained three "protection of abuse" orders against him, court records show.

An inmate at a state prison where Graner worked filed a lawsuit against him and other guards in 1999 for allegedly kicking and beating him, according to court records. Graner denied abusing the prisoner. The case was dismissed in 2000 when the man, who by then had been released from prison, failed to appear in court.

Graner's attorney in Texas, Guy Womack, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

David Passaro is accused of beating a detainee in Afgha nistan so badly that the man later died. Passaro joined the Army in 1992 and later became a Ranger, after he was fired from the Hartford, Conn., Police Department for allegedly assaulting a man during an off-duty brawl, police and court records show.

At the time of the alleged incident in Afghanistan in 2003, Passaro was working as a civilian contractor for the CIA. The indictment against him charges that he beat an Afghan detainee, Abdul Wali, with his hands, feet and a large flashlight during interrogation June 19 and June 20. Wali died the next day.

Thomas McNamara, a North Carolina public defender who represents Passaro, did not return phone calls.

Flyer worked at the Pentagon for 28 years, retiring in 1979 as staff director for enlistment standards for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense. Since then, he has been hired by the Pentagon as an outside consultant to write dozens of reports.

His 1998 report estimated that about one- third of recruits had arrest records and many were not detected.

Potential recruits with a criminal record can enlist in the armed forces if they receive a moral character waiver. Flyer's 1998 report said that of the estimated 3.5 million recruits who entered the military service between 1978 and 1989, 300,000 had enlisted with a moral character waiver, most for a criminal arrest record.

The report said that those enlisting with a moral waiver were more likely than others to get into criminal trouble or be discharged for bad behavior.

The Pentagon addressed the use of moral character waivers in a report to Congress, also issued in 1998. The report said that during the previous year, the Army approved 68% of waiver requests for felony convictions.

The report also said that during difficult recruiting periods, the services could "become inclined to enlist individuals who, under more favorable supply conditions, would have been rejected."

Flyer's most recent study called f or a number of reforms, including providing "military managers with guidelines on the behavioral signs … likely to be associated with destructive acts," and better use of computerized records to weed out people with a history of serious behavior problems.

Flyer said some of the recommendations in his reports have been adopted, and some outstanding problems were outside the Pentagon's control, such as screeners' inability to review juvenile records that had been sealed by courts.

But he said that although there had been "significant improvements" over time, there were "still problems to be resolved."

"Building safeguards to protect military personnel from misuse of the records is no easy matter, but the costs of not using this information effectively are very high," he said.

Gilroy said criminal databases used by military screeners were imperfect and that recruits sometimes provided false names or Social Security numbers to hide past misconduct.

Gilroy said the Pent agon had made important improvements in recent years, including centralizing and creating better links between personnel databases.

He also said Pentagon pressure led Congress to pass a bill in the late 1990s that required the states to sharply reduce fees they charged the armed services for criminal background checks.