Defence secretary Leon Panetta has ordered the US military's top brass to look for any gaps in ethics training as he lamented lapses in judgment by officers that could "erode public confidence in our leadership," a Pentagon spokesperson said on Thursday.
Questions over the conduct of US generals has come into sharp focus over the past week as retired General David Petraeus lost his job as CIA director over an affair and General John Allen, who leads the Afghan war effort, was placed under investigation for potentially inappropriate emails with a Florida socialite.
A Pentagon spokesperson told reporters traveling with Panetta in Thailand that development of the defence secretary's initiative pre-dated the latest scandals.
Lesser-known US military leaders have come under scrutiny recently, with one general demoted by Panetta for wasting taxpayer money and another facing accusations including forcible sodomy of a subordinate.
"The vast majority of our senior officers takes this responsibility (of leadership) seriously and acts in accord with ethics regulations and training," Panetta said in a memo to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Martin Dempsey.
"Yet, as has happened recently, when lapses occur, they have the potential to erode public confidence in our leadership. ... Worse, they can be detrimental to the execution of our mission to defend the American people."
Panetta, in the memo dated Nov. 14, called on Dempsey to work with other military leaders to review existing ethics training programmes "to determine if they are adequate to address the concerns I have identified."
He said he would present President Barack Obama an interim report by Dec. 1 with initial results of the review and any recommendations developed by that time.
The memo did not list any specific lapses but on Wednesday Panetta announced he was demoting retiring Army General William Ward and would seek to recoup $82,000 in expenses from him.
Ward was accused of misconduct in travel, misuse of military aircraft and misuse of staff. In one case, Ward took his official plane to Bermuda for an overnight refueling stop with his wife, investigators found. In another case, Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair, a 27-year army veteran based at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, is accused of 26 violations of military law including forcible sodomy, wrongful sexual conduct, possessing pornography while deployed and conduct unbecoming of an officer.
The charges stem from allegations of inappropriate behavior toward four female subordinates and a civilian over the past five years. Sinclair is also accused of claiming more than $4,000 in personal travel as military business expenses.
Panetta said he knows of no other military officials beyond Allen drawn into the investigation of Petraeus. Panetta said in his memo that the Pentagon has strong rules in place setting standards for personal conduct "and prohibit misuse of taxpayer resources."
He said it is not enough to merely comply with rules, saying military leaders also need to exercise sound judgment. "An action may be legally permissible but neither advisable nor wise," he wrote.