The Defense Department has failed to follow through on several key initiatives designed to reduce ethics problems and poor professionalism in the military, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

The GAO found numerous examples in which top military officials evaded orders from Congress or highly touted Pentagon programs aimed at reducing misconduct, especially among senior officers.

Congress last year ordered the GAO to conduct a broad investigation of the military's ethics training programs amid a spate of revelations about senior officer misconduct in 2012 and 2013. That included a massive Navy bribery scandal, Army generals accused of sexual assault and Air Force generals fired for drinking on duty.

The report released Thursday said the military has no reliable way to even determine whether misconduct or unprofessional behavior is on the rise.

"Our review found that the department's ability to assess department-wide trends in ethical behavior is limited because misconduct report data are not collected in a consistent manner across DoD," the GAO said.

The report noted that in 2014, DoD officials said about 146,000 people received annual ethics training, or about 5 percent of the department's total workforce.

The GAO pointed to a 2014 order from Congress that the military services take several actions to reduce sexual assault and the command climates that foster it. Those included a requirement that incoming commanders conduct a "command climate assessment" regarding sexual assault issues.

The Air Force adhered to all the laws passed by Congress, but the Army, Navy and Marine Corps failed to execute key components designed give the new law some teeth by requiring sexual assault command climate assessments — or the failure to conduct one — to be noted in commanding officers' performance evaluations.

Another example was the push to make the top brass submit to "360-degree" evaluations, which include input from peers and underlings and are widely used in the private sector as a way to improve leader effectiveness.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey listens during a discussion about ethics at The Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York City last November. A government watchdog agency says Dempsey's efforts to get the services to institute 360-degree reviews for all commanders have been only partially successful.

Photo Credit: MC1 Daniel Hinton/Navy

In 2013, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, issued a memo calling for all general and flag officers to undergo 360-degree evaluations. Dempsey also sent a memo to the White House and cited this effort as a way to address ethical concerns.

While the Army and Air Force have implemented the 360-degree reviews for all general officers, the Navy and Marine Corps have in most cases failed to do the same, according to the report.

The GAO applauded a move by then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to establish a two-year, potentially renewable, position for a senior adviser for military professionalism to oversee forcewide ethics and professionalism programs. The appointee, Rear Adm. Margaret Klein, has launched several key initiatives, the GAO report said.

But DoD does not have information to track that office's progress or assess whether the new position should be retained after its initial two-year authorization ends in March.

The 2010 survey found that an above-average number of defense employees believe "DoD rewards unethical behavior" and say they "fear retribution for reporting managerial or commander misconduct," according to the GAO.

The new report ultimately recommends that DoD make additional efforts to comply with the laws and policies addressing ethical issues. The GAO also said military officials should develop better tools for identifying ethical misconduct across the force and tracking the impact of prevention efforts.

The Pentagon agreed with most of the recommendations.

Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.

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