Pentagon expected to name panel to probe Air Force Academy

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is expected to appoint an independent panel of civilians on Thursday to investigate allegations of sexual assaults from cadets at the Air Force Academy.

But Pentagon spokeswoman Col. Beverly Lee would not confirm whether the announcement would actually come on May 1. Congress directed Rumsfeld to appoint the seven-member panel by that date in a provision included in the war supplemental spending package, which President Bush signed earlier this month. In an e-mail message April 28, Lee said Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness David Chu "is preparing a slate of candidates to assist the secretary in selecting the panel. Once the panel is selected, we will make a public announcement."

Allegations of sexual assault at the Air Force Academy began to emerge publicly in March. Approximately 56 current and former cadets have alleged they were sexually assaulted or raped while attending the academy, which is located in Colorado Springs, Colo. Some of the allegations date as far back as 1993. As a result of the scandal, Air Force Secretary James Roche has replaced top school officials, though he has said publicly that "the problems regarding sexual assault allegations predate the current leadership."

The Defense Department's inspector general is also investigating the cadets' allegations.

The independent panel, which is scheduled to convene on May 8, must submit a report to Rumsfeld and the chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees 90 days after its first meeting. The panel will investigate the allegations from cadets at the Air Force Academy and that institution's policies and procedures on handling such claims. The group will also review the culture of the Air Force Academy to determine its impact on sexual assault at the institution.

Though the Pentagon has been tight-lipped about the panel and who will serve on it, outsiders said the department was considering between 70 and 80 candidates for the seven slots on the panel.

Debby Tucker, executive director of the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence in Austin, Texas, said she has received a few "informal" telephone calls during the last two weeks from Air Force officials, employees in the Defense Department's Office of the Secretary and congressional staffers requesting recommendations for the panel. Tucker, who served on the 1999-2003 Defense Task Force on Domestic Violence, said she was asked informally by some congressional staffers and contacts in the Air Force if she would be interested in serving on the panel, but she declined. Tucker said she never spoke with anyone who had direct responsibility for choosing panel members.

Tucker said she recommended her colleague Juliet Walters, sexual assault projects director at the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence as a candidate for the panel, because of her "long history of working with sexual assault issues." Tucker also suggested Terri Spahr Nelson, the principal investigator on a five-year international research study on rape and sexual harassment in the American military and author of a book on the subject.

Panel members cannot be active-duty military service members. General criteria for participants include expertise in behavioral sciences and the treatment of sexual assault victims.

In addition to Walters and Nelson, Tucker said individuals in law enforcement and nursing would also be valuable participants on the Defense panel.

"I recommended five different law enforcement people that I know have investigated sex assault and paid a lot of attention to developments in the field and would be assets in helping the academy learn how to investigate rather than not," Tucker said. "I also recommended other places to consider, like the Association of Forensic Nurses. A nurse ought to serve on the panel," she said.

Christine Hansen, executive director of the Miles Foundation, also said she believed the department was considering roughly "70 to 80 names" for positions on the panel, though she also said her organization had not been contacted for input. The Miles Foundation is a nonprofit organization that provides support and other services to victims of violence associated with the military.

Dick Wadhams, press secretary for Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., said he "hadn't heard a lot of specific names" mentioned as potential candidates for the independent panel. When asked if the Defense Department would make an announcement Thursday on the panel, Wadhams said, "I don't know if it will happen." Fifty cadets have contacted Allard's office with allegations of sexual assault and the senator has been closely monitoring the situation.

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