Eighteen years ago a bunch of drunken frat boys in a Vegas hotel got caught doing things they shouldn’t have been doing.
Things that involved hookers, sexual assault, battery, and other dishonorable behavior.
They called it Tailhook.
Specifically it was called the 35th Annual Tailhook Association Symposium, held in September, 1991, at the Las Vegas Hilton. Supposedly it was a convention where Navy and Marine Corps pilots gathered to discuss their profession. In reality, it was Animal House, a week of drunken revelry and strippers and carousing in fine Navy tradition. What happens on deployment, stays on deployment – the Navy used that phrase long, long before Las Vegas made it their official slogan. Tailhook was always a raucous event, but in ‘91 a bunch of drunken Navy and Marine Corps Aviators lined up in a hallway and somehow managed to rip the clothes off and otherwise sexually assault over 80 women – and a dozen men. Several of the Navy’s most senior officers were present, including the Chief of Naval Operations himself, Admiral Frank Kelso.
Now, we – those of us in the Navy – we all knew what happened. There wasn’t one of us in uniform who didn’t know exactly what had happened. We had all been on deployment. We’d been to the Philippines and Thailand and Balearic Islands. We’d raised hell on liberty in Norfolk and San Diego and around the world. We were all more than familiar with Sailors and especially Aviators on liberty. Despite the protestations of the pilots, we all knew exactly what had happened. We had seen it many times, in many bars, in many liberty ports around the world. And we could see it in the smirks and the smiles and the mirrored aviator sunglasses.
And we all knew who was going to pay for it too.
They tried to cover it up, of course, tried to hide what they’d been doing in Vegas, tried to hide it from their girlfriends and wives and families and the nation.
But it had gotten too big, too out of control, for the cover up to contain it.
And so there were inquires and recriminations and scandals. The pilots called it a witch hunt. Senior officers, many long retired, claimed that the investigations would destroy the Navy, destroy Naval Aviation. The phrase “boys will be boys” was bandied about in complete seriousness. Excuses were made and those old admirals issued dire warnings, airing the Navy’s dirty laundry in public would destroy the service and disgrace us all.
NIS bungled the investigation, of course. They fucked it up so badly that instead of destroying the Navy, they destroyed themselves – and were eventually dissolved and reorganized as the NCIS because of it.
After a year they busted a few pilots out of the service. An Admiral got demoted. The senior officers all got to retire at full pensions.
And all of us who weren’t there and had not one goddamned thing to do with it, well, we got to pay. And pay. And pay. We got sensitivity training. And sexual harassment training. And code of conduct training. We got lectured. We got busted for any and every infraction. And we spent a decade paying for those drunken assholes, most of whom left the service and went on to lucrative careers with big airlines and left us holding the bag.
And we got to watch Frank Kelso sell us down the river in exchange for his retirement pay.
See, the Navy has one immutable tradition – the senior officer present is responsible for the conduct of his men. Period. The Captain is always and ultimately responsible for his crew. Frank Kelso was the senior officer present at Tailhook, he was responsible, it was his Navy. Those drunken louts were his responsibility and a reflection of his leadership.
He had a chance to stand before Congress and take responsibility.
Instead he sold us out.
Most of us sailors, people like me, spent a year watching the circus and were filled with nothing but disgust and contempt for our senior leadership.
But you know something?
When it was over, the Navy ended up better off.
We got rid of a lot of the “traditional” navy leadership, including Frank Kelso. We cleaned house. The transformation we endured following Tailhook was long and painful, but it changed the Navy. A decade later we were a far better and a far more professional service. Gone were the days of mayhem and mass drunken revelry on liberty. By the time we hit the new century, the last vestiges of the post-Vietnam paper Navy were gone and we had found honor, courage, and renewed commitment to high ideals. I won’t say sexual harassment was completely gone, but it was damned rare and there were severe consequences, the Navy became a model of equality for other services and for corporate America. Hazing ended. Moral soared and we were glad to see those days lost in the wake behind us.
And Naval Aviation, always the very best of the US Military’s pilots, were orders of magnitude better than they had ever been, proud and professional and they’ve only gotten better since.
Those admirals were wrong. Utterly wrong. Attempting to hide what had happened at Tailhook protected nobody but them. They were trying to hide decades of drunken shenanigans, dishonorable behavior that they themselves had participated in during previous Tailhook conventions or had turned a blind eye to in foreign ports since Vietnam.
The attempted cover-up by those bastards is what nearly destroyed us.
It was the the investigation that saved us. Transformed us. Made us better. Made us proud of who we were once again.
These men too are wrong.
With this petition, the CIA, and those former directors, are basically admitting that they engaged in illegal, dishonorable, and unconstitutional actions.
We, Americans, the world, we know what they did.
If the officers who conducted those interrogations were, indeed, just following orders – well the men who gave those orders are the ones who have the most to lose. And the senior CIA leadership who turned a blind eye to illegal actions and extra-constitutional activities are culpable and they know it. Who? Well that would be men like Michael Hayden, Porter Goss and George Tenet, CIA directors under George W. Bush now wouldn’t it?
And the men who conducted those interrogations are just as guilty – they knew what they were doing was wrong, illegal, and against everything America stands for. But they did it anyway, believing that the end justifies the means. They cohered Soldiers into torture and other dishonorable acts, and then left them holding the bag when it became public - and they’ve never been called to account for it. American soldiers went to jail for things they did under CIA direction, but the goddamned CIA itself has never ever been held accountable or held to the same standard.
The former CIA directors, just like those admirals before them, issued dire warnings. They call the investigation a witch hunt. They said in the letter, "This approach will seriously damage the willingness of intelligence officers to take risks to protect the country.”
They should be afraid to engage in illegal and unconstitutional actions. They should be afraid of the consequences when they violate the law. And those that would go beyond the pale don’t belong in the service of the United States.
These bastards have believed themselves above the law since before the Bay of Pigs and Iran-Contra. They always manage to weasel their way out of responsibility for their actions and their monumental fuck ups.
These sneaky sons of bitches believed, just as those drunken aviators did, that they could get away with it.
They are accountable.
For the good of the nation, for the good of the agency, this investigation must go on. Morally this investigation must go on. These men must be held to the same standards as the rest of us, to the same law, and to the same Constitution.
Unlike those drunken frat boys who were interested in nothing but their own self gratification, the CIA acted in our name. The actions they took were supposedly in our defense. They claim those actions were necessary in time of crisis – but, see, it is in the crucible that you find out what you’re really made of. If in crisis and fire you abandon your principles, well, then you never really had them to begin with.
These men are responsible to us – and we, as Americans, are responsible for their actions. We have a right and a responsibility to know exactly what these men did in our name, in our defense.
And we have a responsibility to hold them accountable for their actions. If we turn a blind eye to the actions of our intelligence community, of our government, then we as Americans are no better than those admirals who turned a blind eye to rape and sexual battery and dishonor.
If the CIA thinks that torture and rendition and extraordinary means are lawful and justified, let them defend their actions before the Court of Inquiry, let them stand before the nation and justify their actions. Let them prove their case.
They can’t, of course – and nobody knows it better than those dishonorable men who did torture in our names.
No one is above the law.
No American is above the Constitution.
These men must be held accountable.
And those that perpetrated these crimes in our name should spend the next decade in prison – right next to the soldiers they sent there and left to rot.
And in the end, mark my words, we, and the CIA, will be far better for it.