WASHINGTON -- On a warm Saturday night last September, Navy Secretary H. Lawrence Garrett III chatted with Navy pilots on a patio outside the Las Vegas Hilton, where military aviators, flush from their victory in the Persian Gulf, were celebrating at a three-day convention.
Just inside, hundreds of officers -- lured by the prospect of free drinks, free food and a chance to share war stories with old buddies -- roamed the third-floor "hospitality suites" rented by aircraft squadrons.
Strippers and scantily clad bartenders worked the 20 suites, where Navy and Marine Corps pilots watched pornographic movies. The alcohol bill per suite was as much as $7,000 during the three days.
It was the 35th annual convention of the Tailhook Association, a private group of retired and active-duty naval aviators. The Navy paid more than $190,000 to fly 1,500 officers on military aircraft to Las Vegas.
By late that evening, in the 140-foot-long hallway connecting the suites, some of the Navy's most elite young officers were mauling and manhandling female colleagues and civilian women, shoving them down a gantlet they had formed in the crowded corridor.
Mr. Garrett, who proclaimed his distaste for lewd behavior with a "zero tolerance" policy when he became Navy secretary, has said that he spent 30 to 45 minutes on the patio but was unaware there was anything amiss inside until three weeks later.
Yet the next morning, Navy officials say, one of the Navy secretary's top aides, Lt. Mike "Trusty" Steed, learned of the assaults when he had breakfast with one of the victims, an admiral's aide who was a friend. Lieutenant Steed declined to comment for this article.
The activities in that hallway are at the heart of the military's most notorious sexual harassment scandal.
How it happened is a question that Navy investigators have had difficulty sorting out, confronted with a stone wall of silence among a brotherhood of aviators who said they could not recall what they had seen.
"A lot of the people there said they didn't see anything they considered wrong," Robert J. Powers, director of investigations and counterintelligence for the Naval Investigative Service, said in a telephone interview.
But after more than 1,500 interviews with officers and civilians who attended, investigators said this month that they had pieced together a rough account that implicated more than 70 officers either in assaults against at least 26 women, of whom 14 were officers, or in a subsequent cover-up. The Navy has not publicly identified the officers.
Mr. Garrett, who declined to be interviewed, has said he is trying to change the culture of the male-dominated, tradition-bound service and has ordered training sessions for Navy personnel worldwide about harassment.
The investigators concluded that despite Mr. Garrett's zero-tolerance policy in 1989, uniformed commanders had tacitly condoned the raunchy behavior at every Tailhook convention since and that the gantlet had apparently become a fixture of the gatherings.
"Apparently, there is a sense in the tactical air community that what happened on the third floor was acceptable social conduct and that allegations concerning their conduct had been blown out of proportion," the inspector general said in a report in April.
On each of the three nights of last September's convention, investigators found, groups of officers in civilian dress suddenly turned violent, organizing with military precision into drunken gangs that shoved terrified women down the gantlet, grabbing at their breasts and buttocks and stripping off their clothes.
Unsuspecting women were ambushed when they walked out of the elevator and turned right down the hallway into a ocean of unrelenting arms.
Among them was a 30-year-old Navy lieutenant, a helicopter pilot who was an admiral's aide at the time. As she approached a group of officers in the hallway looking for some dinner companions, one officer shouted, "Admiral's aide! Admiral's aide," while another "grabbed me by the buttocks with such force that it lifted me off the ground and ahead a step," she later told naval investigators.
Others grabbed her, too, and one man put his hands down her bra. "I then turned my head to the left and sank my teeth into the fleshy part of the man's left forearm, biting hard," she said.
The lieutenant kicked and punched her assailants but was overpowered. After being pawed for about 20 feet of the hallway, she managed to escape through an open door into a hotel room.
The lieutenant, who declined to be interviewed for this article, later filed a complaint with her boss, Rear Adm. John W. Snyder Jr., then head of the Patuxent River Naval Air Test Center in Maryland.
According to statements the admiral's aide made to investigators, Admiral Snyder said, "That's what you get for going to a hotel party with a bunch of drunk aviators." But he eventually relayed the complaint to his superiors.
Two civilian women from Northern California who were vacationing at the hotel, a 31-year-old computer engineer and a 33-year-old real estate appraiser, said they were accosted when they went to the third floor as the guest of an officer.
The women reported the assaults to the hotel security and to the Las Vegas police. But their complaint was dropped for lack of evidence, a police spokesman said.
Most women who were accosted told investigators they did not want to press charges or could not identify their attackers. Indeed, many women said in Navy interviews that the existence of the gantlet was common knowledge among officers and that many women warned friends to avoid the third floor.
For the Navy, awareness of the scope and magnitude of the scandal came slowly. It was not until late September, three weeks after the convention, that Mr. Garrett learned from Lieutenant Steed of the complaint by the admiral's aide. A formal investigation began Oct. 11.
At the end of October, Mr. Garrett learned of five more incidents from Gregory Vistica, a reporter with the San Diego Union-Tribune. The incidents were cited in an Oct. 11 letter reporting on the convention sent to Tailhook Association members from the group's president, Capt. F. G. Ludwig Jr.
The Navy's inquiries were handled by its inspector general and by the Naval Investigative Service Command. They ended in April with investigators able to identify only two suspects because of officers' refusals to talk about the incidents.
The Navy widened its inquiry this month to include officers who it said refused to cooperate in the original investigations and senior officers in nearby suites who did not prevent or stop the incidents.