WASHINGTON -- Four days after he declared he would not quit, the Navy's top admiral yesterday requested early retirement in an effort to end the service's torment over the Tailhook scandal.
Adm. Frank B. Kelso II, chief of naval operations, announced his decision hours after the secretaries of defense and the Navy publicly commended his character and integrity, both of which had been impugned by a military judge last week. For Admiral Kelso, their statements of support were prerequisites for his early departure.
Last week, a military judge found that the 60-year-old admiral witnessed lewd events at the 1991 aviators convention in Las Vegas at which 83 women were assaulted and that he used his "command influence" to "manipulate" the investigation and protect himself.
Admiral Kelso, who has denied the allegations, announced yesterday that he would retire April 30, two months earlier than planned. For the four-star admiral, the retirement will end a 37-year naval career that culminated in his becoming the Navy's top officer.
He continued to assert his innocence yesterday but said: "I clearly have become the lightning rod for Tailhook, and I think it's in the best interest of the Navy . . . if I retire. I could not have taken this course of action without the issue of my integrity and honesty being addressed."
No major charges arising out of the Tailhook convention -- where Navy women were forced to run a gantlet of grabbing males and subjected to other indignities -- have been sustained. But several officers have been fined or have faced administrative action, such as demotion, delayed promotion and letters of caution.
President Clinton will have to choose a successor to Admiral Kelso to lead the Navy through a period of downsizing and adaptation to the post-Cold War era.
The top choice, according to an officer familiar with the selection process, is Adm. Jeremy M. Boorda, 55, commander of NATO's southern flank, who would give the actual order for any air strikes in Bosnia. His key role in the crisis could hamper his selection for immediate transfer to Washington. But he has a particular potential attraction to President Clinton, a self-made leader: Admiral Boorda was an enlisted man who rose through the ranks.
Admiral Kelso's departure comes as part of a package he worked out in a series of Pentagon meetings with Defense Secretary William J. Perry; John Deutch, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, who is in line to become the new deputy secretary; and Navy Secretary John Dalton.
In those private exchanges, Admiral Kelso made it clear to the three civilians that his prime concern was to protect his honesty and integrity. In the end, an early retirement was seen as the best option.
"The goal was not to get him to go," said an officer familiar with the negotiations. "The goal in his mind was to defend his name, and in the eyes of everybody else, it was to get this behind us."
The result: The secretaries of defense and the Navy agreed to put out statements attesting to Admiral Kelso's integrity and honesty.
Mr. Perry, in his statement, said the Defense Department's inspector general had found "no credible evidence" that Admiral Kelso knew of the misconduct in the Las Vegas hotel, that he tried to thwart the Navy's internal investigation or that he withheld files from the investigators.
"I regard Admiral Kelso as a man of the highest integrity and honor," Mr. Perry said. "He has made an enormous contribution to the safety and well-being of the nation."
But some critics of the Navy's handling of Tailhook were not satisfied by yesterday's outcome. Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., said Tailhook had been "mishandled from its tawdry beginning to today's embarrassing finale."