Today's Army: As Red-Faced As It Can Be

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Sometimes the news is far stranger than fiction. In what bears a striking resemblance to a setup for a bad joke, the New York Times reported Thursday that Maj. Gen. Larry Smith, the officer accused of harassing the Army's highest-ranking woman, Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy, was poised last summer to be appointed deputy inspector general for the Army — in which capacity he would have investigated, among other personnel matters, charges of sexual harassment. Smith never got the job, because when news of his pending promotion reached Kennedy, she filed a formal complaint alleging that Smith groped her in her office back in 1996. The complaint followed an earlier informal charge that she hoped would put Smith's career under special scrutiny. To add insult to injury, the Army has seen this kind of scenario before: In 1997, Major General David Hale was appointed briefly to the post of deputy inspector general before multiple allegations of sexual misconduct ended his career.

As the Kennedy story escalates, there's plenty of tongue-wagging over how the Army managed to dig itself into this situation. Some Pentagon-watchers speculate that since Kennedy initially reported the incident on an informal basis — she apparently tried to do the decent thing by not making a fuss — it's possible the higher-ups in charge of issuing appointments never heard about the alleged transgression. Of course, even if their alibi is airtight, there is a general recognition that the Army, as well as Kennedy and Smith, are looking at a rough ride as these accusations play out in the national press. "Now that Kennedy's charges have gone public, it's going to be tough to handle it quietly," says TIME Washington correspondent Mark Thompson. Ironically, says Thompson, military insiders sense that no one wanted this case to be handled privately more than Kennedy. "She feels the whole thing has gotten out of hand," he says. "By complaining informally, she hoped to stop Smith's ascent — not get him kicked out." There was no reason to pursue a formal complaint while Smith's career was static, but the implications of his pending assignment may have proved too bizarre to tolerate.