WASHINGTON -- To penetrate the stone wall of silence tha had stymied earlier investigations, Pentagon authorities used lie detectors, undercover agents and detailed computer analyses to uncover the sordid details of scores of assaults against women two years ago at the Tailhook Association convention of naval aviators.
Adapting tactics and techniques used in criminal inquiries, agents of the Defense Department's inspector general said they were able to overcome the uncooperativeness of the aviators that had hindered two earlier Navy investigations into the convention in 1991 in Las Vegas.
The inspector general's report, released on April 23, outlined in vivid detail a three-day bacchanal where women were groped, pinched, fondled on the breasts and buttocks and bitten. The report identified 175 officers for possible disciplinary action, including nearly three dozen admirals and Marine Corps generals, who allegedly knew about the activity and failed to stop it.
Donald Mancuso, the inspector general's chief criminal investigator, said computerizing thousands of witness statements and other evidence and updating it daily was central to the inquiry's success.
An agent preparing to interview Navy officers in Japan, for
example, could check the data bank to see if his subjects had turned up in statements taken from other officers earlier that day in Southern California.
"With our agents interviewing 40 to 50 people a day around the world, the system became invaluable because officers couldn't get away with small inconsistencies in their stories," Mr. Mancuso said.
The Pentagon inspector general's office inherited the case last spring, after inquiries by the Naval Investigative Service and the Navy inspector general yielded few results. The Pentagon inspector general's office spends 80 percent to 85 percent of its time on criminal fraud and bribery cases, but it also works on anti-drug operations and large thefts from military depots.
Mr. Mancuso said he had initially thought that 20 agents %J conducting about 1,000 interviews could wrap up the case. But investigators soon uncovered more assaults and other wrongdoing, Mr. Mancuso said. Eventually, 83 women and seven men said they were assaulted.
Fifty agents were divided into East Coast and West Coast groups. Two agents would interview a witness, and the third would type and file the reports. Female agents were especially effective, Mr. Mancuso said.
"Officers were unable to make the impression with the female agents that this was just a guy thing," said Mr. Mancuso. "And the women put many of the men off balance. They weren't used to dealing with professional women who [were] older than they were."
The women were in the late 20s to early 40s, and many had formerly worked for the FBI or other law-enforcement agencies.
Mr. Mancuso said the female agents were also important in eliciting statements from women who were assaulted at the convention.
"Most of the officers interviewed responded in a serious and cooperative fashion," the inspector general's report said. "Other officers were far less cooperative and attempted to limit their responses so as to reveal only minimal information."
The report said agents concluded that 51 individuals had lied to investigators. Agents gave lie-detector tests to 34 people who agreed to the procedure. In 12 cases, officers admitted wrongdoing after failing the test.
Agents obtained more than 800 photographs taken at the convention, many through subpoenas. Mr. Mancuso said many officers denied seeing or doing anything wrong until they were confronted with pictures.
Pentagon authorities granted immunity to two officers suspected criminal behavior at the convention to get information that Mr. Mancuso would not discuss.