COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. Top Air Force officials and members of Congress knew of the Air Force Academy's sex-assault problems years ago but didn't take action, Pentagon records show.
They knew because a high-level Air Force official alleged in a four-page report the academy was a haven for rapists because of a "culture of silence" that discouraged women from reporting attacks.
Those charges surfaced in the report given to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald Fogleman in 1996 and to members of the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2000.
Some committee members are highly critical of Air Force officials and adamant people be held accountable for the scandal in which dozens of women said the academy dismissed assault reports.
Top members of that committee got the report in 2000 and shuffled it to other agencies, however.
Congress in May ordered an independent panel be formed to study what went wrong and assess blame for the sex-assault scandal. It's one of four investigations the scandal triggered.
The 1996 report on sexual and physical assault at the academy was done at the request of the high-level official. It was given to Fogleman at that time and resurfaced in 2000 when the Senate Armed Services Committee considered a promotion for a former academy commandant.
The academy maintained a "culture of silence and intimidation" that stigmatized women who came forward. It placed the institution and peers above personal integrity.
The reporting consisted of a "fractured composite of agencies, functioning separately" but no formal program to help victims.
No one had ultimate responsibility for investigating and dealing with incidents.
Sixteen cases of assault spanning several years included one woman so traumatized she slept with a weapon; another raped at the academy's prep school who was so ostracized for reporting the attack she didn't report a subsequent gang rape; another who suffered a cut vagina in an attack but didn't report it until she experienced "noticeable" blood loss; and others who were left to "suffer silently in shame."
The school "reflects institutional/cultural dysfunction" that officials should confront.
Some sexual assaults might have been covered up.
This summer the Air Force general counsel issued a report based on her five-month investigation that substantiated many of the 1996 report's claims and more.
"The killer question is, how many of the rapes happened since it was first brought to the attention of the Air Force, the inspector general, the Senate Armed Services Committee -- the very top levels? It went on and on and on," said the high-level official who blew the whistle in 1996. The official, who insisted on anonymity, declined further comment.
Air Force records show at least 30 sexual assaults have been reported to academy officials since the report was given to Fogleman.
The scandal erupted early this year when victims complained to members of Congress and reporters.
Since then, top Air Force officials have overhauled policies guiding cadet life, ousted four top academy officers and demoted the former superintendent.
Fogleman, chief of staff from 1994-97 and now retired, learned of "problems with sexual assault at the academy" from the whistle-blower in 1996, according to Pentagon records obtained by The Gazette (Colorado Springs) and under the review of the independent congressional panel.
The whistle-blower told investigators in 2000 Fogleman promised to take the matter to Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall, who served in that position from 1993-97.
Widnall said she doesn't remember the report.
"This does not ring a bell," she said. "Nobody ever sent it to me."
Fogleman told investigators during the 2000 inquiry that when problems surfaced he usually was given proposed solutions. He couldn't recall the solution but suggested it likely was in a 1996 letter from Air Force Inspector General Lt. Gen. Richard Swope.
In the letter to Lt. Gen. Paul Stein, the academy superintendent, Swope said it was "an absolute necessity" sexual assaults be reported to a high-level academy leader to promote consistency and place the responsibility for follow-up decisions on the officer who will be held accountable for those decisions.
The academy continued, however, to allow victims to withhold their names and not report assaults to commanders or investigators.
During the recent scandal, the process was changed to require the academy to follow Air Force regulations and report cadet assaults to commanders and investigators.
Fogleman didn't return two phone calls seeking comment.
In July 2000, the whistle-blower took the 4-year-old report to Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., alleging sex-assault reports might have been covered up during the 1994-96 tenure of former Commandant John Hopper Jr. He was being considered for a third star.
Landrieu referred the report to Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
In a July 27, 2000, letter to Warner, she termed the whistle-blower "credible" and noted the report is "of such gravity that I believe it requires the attention of the Senate Armed Services Committee."
The issue then was shuffled from one group to another.
Warner and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., referred the report to the Defense Department, asking for "the department's views prior to considering the nomination" of Hopper.
Defense officials referred the matter to the Air Force Inspector General's Office, which interviewed about a dozen people and reviewed two dozen assault cases before clearing Hopper. He got his third star.
The investigation "found no evidence to indicate that General Hopper abused that command authority by either actively concealing or discouraging investigation of sexual assault cases by any office."
Several of those interviewed, whose names were censored from the file, noted a climate of abuse. Investigators still didn't explore that issue.
A person from the cadet counseling center said Hopper was "actively involved in trying to improve the climate."
An Office of Special Investigations agent said Hopper tried "to find better ways to deal with sexual assaults."
Another counseling center official said Hopper "had never done anything to indicate an attempt to 'cover up' any of the incidents involving sexual abuse/assaults against academy women."
An unidentified witness said "because of the emphasis on teamwork and 'taking care of your buddies,' female cadets were reluctant to come forward and report serious incidents."
The Air Force's report, while not focusing on climate issues, noted the academy had no program to help victims. Investigators didn't view the absence of a program as misconduct on Hopper's part.
At their word
Senate Armed Services Committee staffers met several times with Air Force officials in August 2000, said Lindsay Ellenbogen, Landrieu's communications director.
"The committee staff was convinced the Air Force had investigated the matter thoroughly," she said. "When the staff felt that way, we took them at their word."
The whistle-blower offered three times -- twice in writing to Landrieu and once to investigators -- to testify before the Armed Services Committee but never was invited.
Levin, out of the country, wasn't available for comment.
Warner, also traveling, did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Inspector General Raymond Huot, who took office Aug. 28, 2000, and signed off on the Hopper investigation two days later, said through a spokeswoman his office was "concerned and appropriately involved" in the investigation.