DEFENDING AMERICA
David H. Hackworth
Column 2

ADMIRAL, THE BUCK STOPS WITH YOU

Last month, Navy Secretary John Dalton punished 33 top-ranking officers over the Tailhook sexual harassment scandal. Dalton said it was a U.S. Navy tradition to hold people "responsible and accountable" for their acts. Holding people's feet to the fire used to be an American tradition. but that custom is going out of style throughout our land, especially within the capital's Beltway.

Dalton's act is a breath of fresh air in a city fouled by unethical behavior, where passing the buck is an art form and where few high officials who trespass are never punished for their sins. Look at the recent record: Congresspersons kite checks, steal from the congressional post office and lie with the rapidity of a machine gun.

Savings-and-loan bankers wheel and deal and lose billions of dollars, on which taxpayers have to make good. Justice Department officials kill both the attackers and defenders of Waco. Admirals and generals submit false reports concerning mandatory readiness, operations and equipment performance. Civilian defense officials put politics over war-fighting considerations, resulting in young warriors being hung out to die.

In our living-in-the-'90s world of sleaze, anything goes. Mistakes are quickly blurred out at public expense by the sinners' glib spin doctors. They sensationalize and twist the breaking news to erase yesterday's bad tidings. They know that the public's attention span is about as short as a three-round burst from an M-16. Such sorry obfuscation assures that those in power will not be held responsible or account- able.

Perhaps Dalton's return to old moral standards of accounting may change our nation's leadership from the 'do as I say, not as I do' mode. Perhaps our Congress will be "born again" and will follow Dalton's example and protect the public trust instead of violating it.

Dalton's boss, defense secretary Les Aspin, an old Washington hand, seems to have mastered the art of malfeasance. As a congressman, he escaped responsibility and accountability for years.

In less than one year as secretary of defense, Aspin has broken the public faith big time: He wasted $30,000 of taxpayers' money on a five-day holiday in Venice with his girlfriend; he produced a defense plan that protects the porkers, politicos and defense complex jobs and leaves our country with a hollow force that will not be able to accomplish President Clinton's national strategic defense plan; and lastly, he wrongheadedly dismissed the concern of his commanders in Somalia that the mission there had crept from feeding to fighting and denied their urgent requests for more troops and armor to protect American warriors.

Last month Aspin appointed a low-level investigating committee composed of members of his own staff to find out what happened in Somalia. This is like telling the lunatics in the asylum to examine the shrinks. Normally, a special commission of senior officers would be appointed to find out what went wrong and to prevent a cover-up. This was done after the debacles of Desert One in Iran in 1980 and the 1983 terrorist bombing in Beirut, which killed 242 Marines. Investigating yourself is a typical Aspin maneuver. But let's hope it won't work this time.

Because of Aspin's negligence, 18 young warriors paid with their lives and almost 80 more were wounded. Their commanders did not have armor to punch through to get them out of an urban killing field. Now our defense secretary is trying to duck the heat of his blunders. How many more American warriors will die somewhere down the road, when Aspin's hollow forces are thrown into the next bloodbath against the advice of battlefield commanders?

Aspin must be held responsible and accountable for the deaths in Somalia, just as the brass who got nailed for Tailhook. He should not be allowed to investigate himself. The Tailhook brass tried that and public outrage demanded a higher investigation. A congressional investigation must examine what happened in Mogadishu on that bloody Sunday in October.