WASHINGTON - The Navy brusquely fired the captain of the USS Enterprise on Tuesday, more than three years after he made lewd videos to boost morale for his crew, timing that put the military under pressure to explain why it acted only after the videos became public.
Tuesday's removal from command effectively ends Capt. Owen Honors' Navy career, and many expect Honors to retire, CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr reports.
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Senior military officials said they were trying to determine who among Navy leaders knew about the videos when they were shown repeatedly in 2006 and 2007 to thousands of crew members aboard the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
An investigation by U.S. Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., also is seeking to determine whether Honors was reprimanded at the time.
The episode has raised serious questions about whether military leaders can behave badly so long as the public doesn't find out.
"He showed bad judgment and he embarrassed the Navy. Those are things that are going to be hard for the Navy to ignore or to forgive," said Stephen Saltzburg, the general counsel of the National Institute of Military Justice and a law professor at George Washington University.
Just two days after the videos were shown repeatedly on television, the Navy called a news conference Tuesday in Norfolk to announce that Honors was stepping down as ship commander and being reassigned to administrative duties ashore.
"After personally reviewing the videos created while serving as executive officer, I have lost confidence in Capt. Honors' ability to lead effectively," said Adm. John Harvey, head of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, in Norfolk.
Harvey declined to answer questions from reporters.
"We are held -- indeed, we must be held -- to higher standards of performance and conduct," Harvey told reporters. "Those in command must exemplify the Navy's core values of honor, courage and commitment."
In a statement, the Navy said Capt. Dee Mewbourne will assume command as the Enterprise's new commanding officer Tuesday afternoon. Mewbourne was serving as the chief of staff for Navy Cyber Forces. He had previously commanded the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The Pentagon said the disciplinary system isn't foolproof but generally works.
"There are always going to be people do things they shouldn't," said Marine Corps Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman. "They will be held accountable."
Yet Honors was set to deploy with the USS Enterprise this month as the ship's commander when The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk obtained videos he made three and four years ago as the carrier's executive officer. Honors, who took command of the ship in May, appears in the videos using gay slurs, simulating masturbation and staging suggestive shower scenes.
While many sailors aboard the ship at the time have defended Honors on Facebook postings - contending he was simply providing a much-needed morale boost during long deployments at sea - senior military officials interviewed by The Associated Press said the videos were extreme and showed a disturbing lack of judgment.
No leaders in senior posts at the Pentagon and in the Navy could not explain why, if Honors' conduct was so questionable, he was promoted after the videos aired. Last week, the Navy said the videos were intended merely as "humorous skits" and stopped airing immediately after other senior officers became aware of them.
According to the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen weren't aware of the videos until this week. They were said to have left any disciplinary action up to the Navy.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus first learned of the videos last weekend, spokespeople said, and both supported the decision to fire Honors. They declined to say, however, whether either official pressed for the dismissal, saying only that it was Harvey's decision.
The lewd videos were far from the first time that U.S. troops have been disciplined for misbehaving.
In 1991, the Navy became embroiled in the "Tailhook" scandal in which naval pilots were accused of sexually abusing female officers at a Las Vegas convention. During the Iraq war, shocking images surfaced of prisoners being abused by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib.
And in 2008, a Marine was kicked out of the service after being videotaped throwing a puppy off a cliff while on patrol in Iraq and joking about it.
A conservative group that has previously clashed with Adm. Mullen on his support to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" ban seized on the latest incident on Tuesday. The group accused the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of turning a blind eye to discipline problems that, they say, will make openly gay service difficult.
Mullen was chief of naval operations when the videos were made.
"Now we know that Adm. Mullen's rose-colored crystal ball is unreliable," said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness.
Asked to respond, Mullen spokesman Capt. John Kirby said, "The chairman's long record of command and leadership, afloat and ashore, speaks for itself."
The Pentagon said December's congressional vote to end the "don't ask, don't tell" ban did not contribute to this week's reaction to the videos. Lapan said anti-gay slurs have never been considered appropriate in the military.
Gates is expected to begin this week the process of pulling together a final plan to repeal the rule against open service by gays. The law signed by President Obama last month requires that before any changes are made the Pentagon must certify to Congress that lifting the ban wouldn't hurt military effectiveness
Lapan said initiating that process will be one of Gates' "highest priorities" this month.Michael Corgan, a career Navy officer who now teaches at Boston University, said before the news that Honors would be relieved that he was guilty not only of an error in judgment but of failing to recognize a changing Navy culture.
"Standards shift, of course, and trimming your sails is something you have to do if you're going to command people in the Navy," Corgan said. "This guy showed poor judgment."
Former Petty Officer Phillip Ciesla, who was a crewmember on the Enterprise when controversial videos were first shown, defended Honors and said the videos were a morale booster for the crew.
"They were meant for our entertainment - you know, lighthearted laughter," Ciesla said on CBS' "The Early Show." "None of it was ever meant, you know, to be taken seriously."
"When you're out to sea for months on end, you're halfway around the world, and you're working arduous hours - 15 to 18 hours a day, temperatures of 120 degrees or more in the Persian Gulf - morale starts to get a little low," Ciesla said. "And you just want a sense of normalcy, you know, something to boost your morale, just a little something to get you through your day, just a little laughter."
Corgan said the repeal of don't ask, don't tell probably had nothing to do with the furor now: "What he did would have been dumb 30, 40 years ago."
Some sailors who served on the Enterprise have taken to Facebook to defend Honors and his video skits for providing a much-needed morale boost during long deployments at sea.
They portrayed Honors as a man who genuinely cared about his sailors and helped them blow off steam with corny and occasionally outrageous videos he concocted every week during six-month tours of duty in the Middle East at the height of the Iraq War. Maintaining morale is typically part of the XO's job.
"He was a caring professional and, yes, he has a sense of humor, but you need that on a boat," said Misty Davis, who served on the Enterprise from 2006 to 2010. The offending video was shown in 2007, and was a compilation of previous videos he had shown, she and others said.
"It's no worse than anything you'd see on `Saturday Night Live' or `The Family Guy,"' Davis said Monday. "I used to watch all of them. They were freaking hilarious."