WASHINGTON – The Navy brusquely fired the captain of the USS Enterprise on Tuesday, more than three years after he made lewd videos to boost morale for his crew, timing that put the military under pressure to explain why it acted only after the videos became public.
Senior military officials said they were trying to determine who among Navy leaders knew about the videos when they were shown repeatedly in 2006 and 2007 to thousands of crew members aboard the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
An investigation by U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., also is seeking to determine whether Capt. Owen Honors was reprimanded at the time.
The episode has raised serious questions about whether military leaders can behave badly so long as the public doesn't find out.
"He showed bad judgment and he embarrassed the Navy. Those are things that are going to be hard for the Navy to ignore or to forgive," said Stephen Saltzburg, the general counsel of the National Institute of Military Justice and a law professor at George Washington University.
Just two days after the videos were shown repeatedly on television, the Navy called a news conference Tuesday in Norfolk to announce that Honors was stepping down as ship commander and being reassigned to administrative duties ashore.
"After personally reviewing the videos created while serving as executive officer, I have lost confidence in Capt. Honors' ability to lead effectively," said Adm. John Harvey, head of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, in Norfolk. Harvey declined to answer questions from reporters.
The Pentagon said the disciplinary system isn't foolproof but generally works.
"There are always going to be people do things they shouldn't," said Marine Corps Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman. "They will be held accountable."
Yet Honors was set to deploy with the USS Enterprise this month as the ship's commander when The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk obtained videos he made three and four years ago as the carrier's executive officer. Honors, who took command of the ship in May, appears in the videos using gay slurs, simulating masturbation and staging suggestive shower scenes.
While many sailors aboard the ship at the time have defended Honors on Facebook postings — contending he was simply providing a much-needed morale boost during long deployments at sea — senior military officials interviewed by The Associated Press said the videos were extreme and showed a disturbing lack of judgment.
No leaders in senior posts at the Pentagon and in the Navy could not explain why, if Honors' conduct was so questionable, he was promoted after the videos aired. Last week, the Navy said the videos were intended merely as "humorous skits" and stopped airing immediately after other senior officers became aware of them.
According to the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen weren't aware of the videos until this week. They were said to have left any disciplinary action up to the Navy.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus first learned of the videos last weekend, spokespeople said, and both supported the decision to fire Honors. They declined to say, however, whether either official pressed for the dismissal, saying only that it was Harvey's decision.
The lewd videos were far from the first time that U.S. troops have been disciplined for misbehaving.
In 1991, the Navy became embroiled in the "Tailhook" scandal in which naval pilots were accused of sexually abusing female officers at a Las Vegas convention. During the Iraq war, shocking images surfaced of prisoners being abused by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib.
And in 2008, a Marine was kicked out of the service after being videotaped throwing a puppy off a cliff while on patrol in Iraq and joking about it.
A conservative group that has previously clashed with Adm. Mullen on his support to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" ban seized on the latest incident on Tuesday. The group accused the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of turning a blind eye to discipline problems that, they say, will make openly gay service difficult.
Mullen was chief of naval operations when the videos were made.
"Now we know that Adm. Mullen's rose-colored crystal ball is unreliable," said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness.
Asked to respond, Mullen spokesman Capt. John Kirby said, "The chairman's long record of command and leadership, afloat and ashore, speaks for itself."
The Pentagon said December's congressional vote to end the "don't ask, don't tell" ban did not contribute to this week's reaction to the videos. Lapan said anti-gay slurs have never been considered appropriate in the military.
Gates is expected to begin this week the process of pulling together a final plan to repeal the rule against open service by gays. The law signed by President Barack Obama last month requires that before any changes are made the Pentagon must certify to Congress that lifting the ban wouldn't hurt military effectiveness
Lapan said initiating that process will be one of Gates' "highest priorities" this month.
Capt. Dee Mewbourne has been named the new commander of the USS Enterprise. He is a former commander of the carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Associated Press writers Dena Potter and Steve Szkotak from contributed to this report from Virginia.