WASHINGTON -- In November 1996, then-Maj. Gen. Claudia J. Kennedy, the Army's most-high-profile female officer, was called upon for a special assignment.
Reeling from widespread reports of sexual misconduct at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, Army leaders had named her to a panel that was investigating whether the Army was facing a service-wide harassment problem.
What the Army didn't know was that several weeks earlier, Kennedy had been involved in an incident with a fellow general that she says amounted to sexual misconduct. At the time, however, Kennedy decided only to confront her accuser and not file a report, sources familiar with the case say.
Last fall, when the fellow general who Kennedy says harassed her, Maj. Gen. Larry G. Smith, was in line to become the Army's deputy inspector general -- the No. 2 official, who investigates sexual misconduct and other wrongdoing -- did she step forward and alert the Army's inspector general, the sources said.
"He says one thing, she says another," a source said.
Smith has reportedly told investigators that he has known Kennedy for years and that he hugged her while in her Pentagon office one day in 1996.
Kennedy views it differently. "She claims it's more than a hug." the source said.
Neither Smith nor Kennedy will discuss the matter. Smith's military lawyer does not want his name to be released.
Service officials are declining to discuss the latest embarrassment involving sexual misconduct in the Army, which has seen its top enlisted soldier accused of sexual misconduct and has recalled a general to face court-martial over charges that he had sex with the wives of subordinates.
Army officials say it could be weeks or more before Kennedy's allegations of sexual misconduct are resolved by the inspector general.
Kennedy is facing an investigation by the Pentagon inspector general, who received an e-mailed complaint last week from a retired Army officer alleging "personal misconduct" by her during the mid-1980s.
But a Pentagon official says it "is pretty thin," and "doesn't have much in the way of specifics." Unless the investigator general can find "concrete information" in the coming days, the matter will he dropped, said the official.
Kennedy, 52, who is single, was promoted to lieutenant general in 1997 and was named the Army's deputy chief of staff for intelligence. In the past several years, she has been the focus of magazine articles and has been called a possible political candidate.
Before the incident came to light, Kennedy, a career intelligence officer and the Army's highest-ranking woman, told her staff that she planned to retire in August, after 31 years in uniform.
Smith's job with the Army inspecter general was "frozen" last fall after Kennedy's allegations came to light. He is now a special assistant to the commander of the Army Materiel Command in Alexandria, Va., officials said.
Kennedy's friends are sending her supportive e-mails and trying to buck up her spirits.
"I know Claudia Kennedy, and if she says something inappropriate happened, I believe her," said Mady Wechsler Segal, a University of Maryland sociologist who served with the general on the Army's sexual harassment panel four years ago. That panel found that sexual harassment was still a problem in the ranks and that 47 percent of the military women interviewed reported experiencing "unwanted sexual attention."
Former officers who know Smith describe the 55-year-old officer as a reserved, decorated soldier who served three tours in Vietnam. Smith, who is married with two children, worked on development of the M1-A2 Abrams tank and, like other generals, yearned for command of a division. Last fall, he wrestled over whether to take the deputy inspector general's job or retire.
Retired Lt. Gen. Paul E. Funk, who has known Smith since the mid-1980s at the Armor Center at Fort Knox, Ky., says he finds it implausible that Smith would engage in any wrongdoing.
"He's bright, he's quiet, he's under-flamboyant," Funk said. "He's a gentleman. I don't see him harassing anybody."
When the story of Kennedy's allegation against Smith broke last week, initial media reports said, that Kennedy had complained to a superior at the time of the 1996 incident. But sources familiar with the case say she neither told anyone in the Army about it nor filed a complaint.
The nagging question for some is why Kennedy didn't file a report at the time. Army and sexual harassment experts say it is important to have a written record close to the time of the incident.
Under Army regulations, a formal complaint can be filed by submitting a sworn statement to superiors or an alternative source, such as a chaplain or the inspector general. The regulations say the complaint should be filed within 60 days of the incident.
The Army also says an informal complaint can be filed if the soldier "does not wish to file in writing." The accuser can resolve such a complaint with the help of a fellow service member or a commander.
In any case, under Army regulations, allegations of sexual misconduct should be resolved early, at the "lowest possible level" in the chain of command, so the matter can be dealt with efficiently.
"What we want people to do is make a complaint, so it's documented and that people can be held accountable," said an Army legal officer, who requested anonymity.
Still, the officer said, it's not unusual for people to lodge their first complaints years later. This officer noted, for example, that the toll-free sexual harassment phone number set up after the Aberdeen scandal brought allegations from decades earlier.
Kennedy told her story to the Army inspector general last fall -- three years after the incident -- once it became clear that Smith was in line for the deputy inspector general's job.
"It makes it harder to explain and tell what happened if you don't have a contemporaneous report," said Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, an advocacy group that honored Kennedy at its annual fund-raising dinner last fall.
Still, Campbell said, each case is different and women often prefer to deal with an incident quickly and quietly.
"I'm really hesitant to say in all cases you should tell somebody," Campbell said.
Segal, the University of Maryland sociologist, says the case reminds her of the sexual misconduct charges made by Anita Hill against Clarence Thomas, after his nomination to the Supreme Court. Hill made her complaint public long after the incident and only after Thomas had been selected for the high court.
There is so much uncertainty surrounding the case, Campbell says, that she is reluctant to draw conclusions at this point.
"I want to see what comes of the inspector general," she said.