WASHINGTON — The Army inspector general was unsparing: The two-star general had an inappropriate relationship with a woman and lied to investigators about it, made his staff buy sexy clothing for her, subjected his underlings to racist and sexist emails and allowed himself to be photographed with another woman licking the medals on his formal dress uniform.
After the report was received and signed by top Army officials in September 2010, Maj. Gen. John Custer, commander of the Army’s intelligence school at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., faced public shaming and the loss of rank.
That’s when Gen. Martin Dempsey intervened. Dempsey, then the four-star in charge of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, struck from the record the substantiated finding of Custer’s inappropriate relationship. That left the board of three generals deciding Custer’s fate with two relatively minor charges and the letter of reprimand that Dempsey had issued.
Custer's case, and Dempsey's intervention, were kept in the dark by the Army for years. The matter came to light only after a whistle-blower complained to USA TODAY, which then obtained the report through a Freedom of Information Act request. The military’s lack of transparency in meting out punishment allows favoritism to go unchecked, said Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders.
“The discipline process is opaque. When it comes to generals, it’s a blackout,” said Christensen, the former top prosecutor for the Air Force. “You have to be lucky. Rarely ever does this sees the light of day. ... At the four-, three-, two-star level, they cover for each other. Dempsey by his actions proved it.”
The generals considering Custer's case could have busted their fellow general officer down to the last rank in which he had served satisfactorily.
Instead, Custer was treated to the pageantry of his change-of-command ceremony and a glowing story on the Army’s website, and he was allowed to keep his two stars in retirement and the six-figure pension attached to it. A two-star officer with his experience would receive about $162,000 per year in pension payments.
Dempsey, a little more than a year later, ascended to the top of the uniformed military: chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. From that post, he would lament the ethical crisis in the military and the scourge of sexual assault and harassment. He and the chiefs vowed to root it out.
However, Dempsey fought attempts by Congress to limit the role of commanders in handling of sexual assault and harassment cases, saying in a June 2013 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that "our goal should be to hold commanders more accountable, not render them less able to help us correct this crisis. The commander's responsibility to preserve order and discipline is essential to affecting change. They punish criminals and protect victims when and where no other jurisdiction is capable, or lawfully able to do so."
In the case of Custer, it was his commander, Dempsey, who wiped out the substantiated claims of adultery and never disclosed his aid to Custer while the bills were being debated in Congress. If senators had known, that might have altered the course of the legislation.
Stories in the last year by USA TODAY about the “swinging general,” Maj. Gen. David Haight, whose serial promiscuity killed his career, the demotion of the three-star adviser to the Defense secretary for drunken carousing at “gentleman’s clubs,” and the firing of another on the Joint Staff for adultery show that misconduct among senior officers has been anything but eradicated.
Even long-retired generals like Custer can be subject to sanction. Arthur Lichte, who retired in 2010 from the Air Force as a four-star general, lost two stars in February, and $60,000 a year in pension benefits, after it was determined that he had coerced a subordinate into sex.
And it largely remains a dirty secret within the military. The case of Haight, who had the critical job of overseeing operations at European Command, likely would have passed by unnoticed if not for a whistle-blower complaint to USA TODAY. The Army had quietly removed him from his post last spring, replaced him without notice and hauled him back to Washington. Even though he had been a candidate for blackmail and espionage, Haight had been allowed to maintain his security clearance until USA TODAY asked about it late in the fall.
Taking care of their own
Custer’s story shows how the top brass’ public pronouncements of zero tolerance for sexual misconduct don't match the private, preferential treatment they offer to one of their own. The Army inspector general’s report, not released until this year and obtained by the paper through the Freedom of Information Act, showed Custer’s cavalier regard for investigators’ questions. At times, he dismissed their concerns with laughs, and, at others, offered answers about his relationship with women and denials of having sex that investigators deemed “not credible.”
Custer, in an interview, called the charges false or overblown.
Dempsey declined to comment for this article.
Advocates for victims of sexual assault in the military were far less charitable toward Dempsey and Custer. “That Dempsey read this report and believes this guy who has violated every Army value that Dempsey claims to believe in?” Christensen asked. “Holy crap. It's 100% inappropriate.”
Custer’s case, like many before it, reveals a culture that looks out for its own and conceals its dirty secrets, said Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight, a government watchdog group.
“It's troubling that Gen. Dempsey found the alleged affair to be unfounded despite the fact that the Army IG found that Maj. Gen. Custer engaged in an inappropriate relationship," Amey said. "It would have been wiser to let the entire report go to the review board, allow Maj. Gen. Custer to explain the situation, and let the chips fall where they may.”
Custer’s last stand
Custer, by most any measure, was a highly successful and accomplished officer. He joined the Army in 1978 and built a career in military intelligence on successive accomplishments. One of his key posts: director of intelligence for Central Command, the nerve center for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, from 2003 to 2007. He’s fluent in French and Russian, according to his official biography.
In 2007, he became the commanding general and commandant of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center for Excellence at Fort Huachuca, Ariz.
And that’s when the IG found the problems began.
A complaint about Custer’s behavior reached the Army inspector general on Sept. 1, 2009. Custer says he “self-reported.”
A year later, the IG released its scathing report in which investigators found three substantiated allegations against him: an inappropriate relationship from July 2007 to January 2010; failure to demonstrate exemplary conduct; and improper use of government resources.
At the beginning of the executive summary, the report says "SUBSTANTIATED ALLEGATION AND CONCLUSION: MG Custer engaged in an inappropriate relationship."
“Evidence of their relationship included: his statement in December 2007 that ‘I love her and want to be with her'; his testimony that he was at one point ‘infatuated’ with her when his own marriage was in trouble; his coded use of email communications and deception to conceal her identity; several meetings with her for dinner or other events during temporary duty trips; use of his (name redacted) to facilitate their relationship and shopping for clothing and giving her jewelry, which he stated was ‘romantic or erotic to me.’ ”
The report was signed by Lt. Gen. R. Steven Whitcomb, the Army inspector general, and Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army's No. 2 officer.
But the substantiated allegation of the inappropriate relationship, prohibited by military law, never reached the board considering whether he should lose rank in retirement. Dempsey had it stricken from the report.
“After considering Maj. Gen. Custer's rebuttal, Gen. Dempsey determined the allegations of an inappropriate relationship with a woman were unfounded and had the allegation removed from the reprimand,” Lt. Col. Jennifer Johnson, an Army spokeswoman, said in a statement.
Dempsey would go on to make ethical behavior a major focus of his early tenure as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In November 2012, he sent all the four-star officers a memo expressing concern about several high-profile instances of senior officer misconduct. In early 2013, Dempsey told reporters that maintaining the integrity of senior officers “a passion” of his since he was a major and that he was committed to addressing the problems.
He said, IG said
Custer remains adamant, nearly seven years after the report, that he and the woman were simply old friends renewing their acquaintance, not romantic partners.
“This is not an inappropriate relationship, or an affair. Of any type of sex, if you will,” Custer said in an interview. The relationship in question, he said, was with someone he had known since kindergarten.
Investigators didn’t believe him.
Their report is studded with Custer’s emails to women with code words for them such as “Atlantic” and “Pacific” and sex, which he referred to as “swimming,” according to their findings.
In a January 2009 email to a woman whose name is redacted, Custer wrote on his government account, “Absolutely wonderful evening! Hard to believe I went swimming in the Atlantic Ocean in January!”
“Swimming,” according to the testimony of a person whose name was also redacted, “referred to sex or sexual activity.”
Custer told investigators that he either forgot what "swimming" meant, that it referred to affection, and finally, in writing, "to virtually anything I might be doing at the time." The "Atlantic," he said, referred to his mother.
The IG didn’t buy that, either.
“MG Custer’s explanation for ‘swimming’ or ‘swam’ was not credible because email content and testimony from the (name redacted) indicated any reference to ‘swimming’ meant sex.”
Shopping sprees: Leather, please
One of Custer’s staffers told investigators “that it was normal for MG Custer to ask her to help him find places to shop. She testified that, ‘he loves fashion. I’ve never seen anybody who likes to shop more than my boss likes to shop.’ ”
Custer instructed the staffer “to find out if there was a Bloomingdale's in Richmond or in the DC area, because he wanted to get leggings in the leather look for (name redacted).”
Custer told USA TODAY the clingy pants were for his wife and no one else.
“I think they were called liquid leather,” Custer said. “My wife has very slender legs and looks great in leather pants. I saw them in that Oprah magazine and somebody was wearing them. I have no idea where you get that kind of stuff. So I asked my aide, and she said, ‘Let’s look online and find out where we can get them and order them.’ "
Email traffic also showed Custer gave a woman, not his wife, turquoise jewelry of his own design. “That necklace has only ever hung around one neck … no other woman ever even tried it on in a store. Nothing could be more romantic or erotic to me.”
Custer later told investigators he gave the woman the necklace for her birthday because she was having hard time after her divorce.
The inspector general concluded that Custer had engaged in an “inappropriate relationship between 2007-2010. Although MG Custer strongly denied having an affair with (name redacted), his denial was less than credible given the feelings he expressed for her in emails and the number of face-to-face meetings between them. There was, however, insufficient evidence, physical or otherwise to establish that MG Custer engaged in a sexual relationship with (name redacted).”
Dempsey sided with Custer, which made the finding of an inappropriate relationship disappear from the record considered by the retirement board.
Two more strikes
Dempsey allowed the board to consider two other substantiated findings: failure to demonstrate exemplary conduct and improper use of government resources.
In one case, Custer sent a staffer several emails on his military account in which he bragged about "swimming" or exchanging "water stories."
On Jan. 1, 2009, he wrote that he “swam in the Pacific three times in the last 24 hours!!!”
The staff testified that swimming meant sex, and "of course it made me uncomfortable; what am I supposed to do? I’m his (position redacted). I’m going to do the job, get out of the job, go to the next job.”
Custer once sent an email to several staffers that showed a “very visible man exposing his penis.” Custer told investigators he regretted sending it.
Another involved a Top Ten List of the reasons there are “no black NASCAR” drivers, apocryphally attributed to David Letterman, according to the website Snopes.com, which debunks urban myths. The No. 4 reason, according to the list “No passenger seat for the nappy headed Ho.”
Custer also acknowledged attending a wedding and being photographed in a “manner that could embarrass the Army.” He testified to standing at attention in his full-dress formal uniform “while his friend licked his medals.”
The inspector general concluded that Custer demonstrated behavior that was not exemplary and should have known it, but Custer said he thought his emails and behavior were funny.
“Did anyone complain?” he asked.
Well, yes, Christensen said.
“Racism and sexism strike at the heart of good order and discipline,” Christensen said. “And for Dempsey to look at that crap and not immediately come down with all authority the Army has is inexcusable. That a general officer can send such a message, and ask how anybody could be offended by it? How clueless."
"I was out of control, OK?"
Misuse of government resources, such as using a military-issued cellphone or email account to arrange an affair, is often added to military adultery cases. For Custer, that involved the phone and email traffic between him and the woman with whom he had the inappropriate relationship.
“This is me crying my heart out to my lifelong closest confidant and stupidly I did it on my BlackBerry,” Custer told the investigators.
The report notes: “Laughing, he testified that, ‘I was going to be (Army Cyber) Command Commander and look what I did on my BlackBerry! ... I was out of control, O.K.?’”
In the interview, Custer said he did not have an affair and said to escape the stress of commanding during war he had nobody else to turn to but old girlfriends.
His wife, worried "whether I was going to be killed" stayed in San Diego when he went to Fort Huachuca, which did not have a Catholic priest "I could talk to." So he "contacted a number of friends, a number of girls who I had grown up with. Friends talking about how I could get Audrey back, my wife. There's the inappropriate relationship."
As Custer’s case wound through the military disciplinary system in late 2010, he relinquished command at Fort Huachuca. Army Cyber Command would have meant promotion to three stars, but the reprimand effectively had ended his military career.
Custer stayed in command for months after the inspector general’s report had been approved. And the Army honored him with a story on its website about his change-of-command ceremony in which he paid tribute to his wife.
“I simply say thank you for everything," Custer said, according to the Army's story. "Thanks for your love of country, of soldiers and of me. I'm still trying to figure out why a woman of your talent would saddle herself with an albatross like me."
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