In a report delivered to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a panel created by Congress said leadership failures went beyond the Colorado Springs, Colo., academy and included Air Force leadership at the Pentagon.
The panel recommended a full investigation by the Pentagon inspector general to determine if academy and Air Force leaders should be held accountable for the failures.
Between 1993 and 2002, there were 142 allegations of sexual assault at the academy. Dozens of female cadets have said academy commanders were complacent about their complaints of sexual assault and in some cases punished them for minor rules violations if they reported they were attacked.
"Academy and Air Force leaders knew or should have known that this data was an unmistakable warning sign and quite possibly signaled an even larger crisis," the report said.
Congress created the seven-member panel because it wanted a nonmilitary group to investigate the academy, in addition to ongoing reviews by the Air Force and Defense Department.
Former Florida Rep. Tillie Fowler, chairwoman of the panel, said academy cadets related "how their lives have been torn apart" by the assaults.
"Most of them suffered alone because of an atmosphere of fear and retribution by peers aided by either indifference, incompetence or a combination of both by an academy leadership they believe failed them," Fowler said.
A survey by the Defense Department inspector general last month found that nearly one in five female cadets said they had been sexually assaulted since coming to the Air Force Academy and just 19 percent reported the crimes, saying they feared punishment or ostracism. Nearly half of those who reported said they suffered reprisal.
The panel singled out previous academy leaders Lt. Gen. John Dallager, Brig. Gen. S. Taco Gilbert III and Col. Laurie Sue Slavec
who were reassigned in the aftermath of the sex scandal for harsh criticism.
"General Dallager and General Gilbert failed to exercise the judgment, awareness and resourcefulness necessary to realize that there was a sexual misconduct and social climate problem in their command that directly impacted the welfare and safety of their cadets," the report stated.
Air Force Secretary James G. Roche replaced the senior academy leadership in March, even though he said they were not responsible for the problems. Roche at the time drew scathing criticism from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who said he "has proven himself totally incapable of handling this issue."
Roche subsequently demoted Dallager one rank to lieutenant general before Dallager retired Sept. 1.
The panel also was critical of a June report by an Air Force Academy Working Group, led by Air Force General Counsel Mary Walker, which Fowler's group said attempted to "shield Air Force headquarters from public criticism" by downplaying leadership failures at headquarters level.
"While the record is not complete, the evidence before the panel shows that the highest levels of leadership had information about serious problems at the academy, yet failed to take effective action," the report said.
The panel recommended those failures also be considered by the inspector general.
Pentagon spokeswoman Michelle Shortencarrier said Rumsfeld planned to carefully review the report and consider the panel's recommendations.
Fowler's panel made 21 recommendations in all, including increased oversight by the Air Force as well as by a strengthened academy Board of Visitors, which is the equivalent of the board of trustees; access to trained counselors for victims of sexual assault; and a four-year tour of duty for the academy superintendent. Currently, superintendents are rotated every three years.
They also emphasized the importance of continued confidential reporting through trained psychotherapists.
The academy's confidentiality policy, which had been enacted in 1993, was rescinded in March by Roche, who felt it left academy commanders in the dark about assaults at the institution. Now each complaint is handled in the chain of command.