After talking with Aberdeen Proving Ground drill sergeants and recruits for four hours yesterday, members of the Congressional Black Caucus called the Army's sexual misconduct probe "contaminated" by coercive investigators and, possibly, racial bias.
Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat who chairs the caucus, called for a halt to the military's five-month investigation into allegations brought by 56 women trained at Aberdeen. She also renewed the group's call for a congressional review of the probe; that request was opposed last week by Army Secretary Togo West, who said the Army could handle the politically charged investigation itself.
"We are more concerned than ever that something is amiss, something is wrong," said Waters. "It does not make much sense to have a contaminated investigation continue."
The five black lawmakers, including Baltimore Democrat Elijah E. Cummings, offered few specifics to support claims that Army investigators have badgered young, white female recruits into filing false charges against black men who trained them at an Aberdeen school.
But Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, a California Democrat, characterized the Army probe as rife with "racial overtones and gender insensitivity."
Army officials watching the news conference, held in a hangar on the post, said lawmakers arrived looking to substantiate allegations that the Army probe was corrupted by overzealous interrogation and racism.
"It's ridiculous to think that [race] would be an issue in this," said Lt. Col. Gabriel Riesco, the ordnance center and school's chief of staff, noting that the Army has interviewed more than 1,200 women. "It's an emotional, knee-jerk reaction. It's based on no facts at all."
None of the recruits interviewed by the lawmakers was at Aberdeen when allegations of rape, forcible sodomy and other sexual misconduct surfaced in November. That raised questions about how much light the recruits could shed on the probe, which came under scrutiny last week when five female privates charged that investigators had tried to solicit false charges against Aberdeen drill sergeants.
Only one of the women, Pvt. Toni Moreland, said she actually signed a false statement. But the lawmakers said yesterday that the women's news conference, arranged by the Harford County NAACP, prompted their visit.
"This is an agenda-driven story," said Ed Starnes, spokesman for the Ordnance Center and School. "We knew this was going to happen. But it's a 'can't win' [situation] for us."
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Washington Democrat, acknowledged that testimony the group heard behind closed doors from 21 recruits and 20 drill sergeants was "anecdotal." And Waters said comments made by recruits -- selected randomly for the interview by Social Security number -- needed review "before we really understand what was being said."
Cummings described as demoralized a corps of Aberdeen drill sergeants, most of whom have been at the post since the allegations surfaced. "The Army may have a problem on its hands. They feel caught in the middle, like sitting ducks," Cummings said.
Only Norton found good news at Aberdeen yesterday. She was encouraged because recruits said that training men and women together is still a good idea. The National Organization for Women has been concerned that the Aberdeen case could be used by the Army to reinstate single-sex training.
To date, four black drill sergeants and one black captain face courts-martial for sexual misconduct. Lesser charges against 10 other sergeants have been resolved administratively; that includes the dismissal of cases against two black sergeants.
Caucus members said they were alarmed that most of the female recruits making the accusations are white, while all the men charged so far are black. Of the 22 men suspended during the investigation, about 14 are black, according to Army sources.
Said Waters: "We are concerned about that because of the history in this country of black men having lost their lives because of charges of rape."
Del. Donna Christian-Green, a Democrat from the Virgin Islands, said, "While we came here with questions, we are leaving with even more questions."
Pub Date: 3/18/97