WASHINGTON -- Overruling his new civilian secretary of the Navy, Defense Secretary Les Aspin said yesterday that he would keep Adm. Frank B. Kelso II as the Navy's top officer.
Navy Secretary John H. Dalton, who took office in August, had called for Admiral Kelso's removal as chief of naval operations for failing to show proper leadership at the 1991 Tailhook Association convention of naval aviators where scores of women were sexually harassed or assaulted.
But Mr. Aspin rejected the recommendation after several of his top aides reviewed Mr. Dalton's findings late Sunday and said the findings had treated Admiral Kelso unfairly compared with 34 other admirals and Marine generals who attended the convention in Las Vegas.
"An evaluation of his record under the criteria you have offered does not suggest to me that he should have been asked to retire," Mr. Aspin said in a memorandum to Mr. Dalton that the Pentagon made public yesterday.
Mr. Aspin also handed back the secretary's recommendations to discipline 12 other admirals and Marine generals and told Mr. Dalton to clarify by Oct. 15 the rationale for the suggested punishments.
"The secretary of the Navy felt the CNO should be judged by a higher or different standard than he was going to apply to the other flag officers, and Mr. Aspin disagreed with that," a senior Pentagon official said.
Admiral Kelso, 60, said, "I'm happy to be able to continue serving as CNO."
While no longer in danger of being relieved, the admiral is still BTC subject to a lesser punishment, Pentagon officials said.
Mr. Aspin's decision to side with Admiral Kelso, a 38-year Navy veteran, in reversing Mr. Dalton's first major decision is an embarrassing rebuke to the Navy secretary, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who was an investment banker in Texas before becoming secretary.
But Pentagon officials dismissed suggestions that the episode would cause any lasting damage to relations between Mr. Aspin and Mr. Dalton, or between Mr. Dalton and Admiral Kelso. The admiral and Mr. Dalton, for example, attended a Navy concert together last night, as originally planned, Navy officials said.
"I understand his reasoning, respect his views and support his decision," Mr. Dalton said in a statement about Mr. Aspin's decision. "My foremost desire is to do what is right for the naval service."
Pentagon officials said Mr. Dalton believed that if the admiral had been doing his job properly he would have known that Tailhook conventions were notorious for debauchery and would have put a stop to it.
In addition, the officials said Admiral Kelso should have known that the Navy violated its own rules to pay more than $190,000 to fly 1,500 officers on military aircraft for what amounted to a three-day party at the Las Vegas Hilton.
They also said Admiral Kelso should have known that some senior admirals expressed demeaning views toward women and should have prevented it.
Moreover, the Pentagon officials said, he should have reacted forcefully when Navy fliers initially failed to cooperate with Navy investigators after accusations of misconduct at the convention.
All these reasons may have justified Admiral Kelso's dismissal two years ago when the assaults were first reported, or even a year ago when the Navy inquiries into the scandal were made public, Pentagon officials said yesterday. But with his having been judged for these lapses and found fit to continue in office despite them, the officials said, it would not have been appropriate to cashier him now.
Admiral Kelso offered to resign in the spring of 1992, but President George Bush and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney refused to accept the offer. The admiral is scheduled to retire July 1, 1994.