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Alaska's senators push plans to increase National Guard scrutiny nationwide

  • Author: Richard Mauer
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 18, 2014

Alaska's two senators proposed congressional action Thursday to clamp down on the National Guard to prevent misconduct from festering the way it has in the scandal-plagued Alaska National Guard.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski wants the Government Accountability Office to look into how the Defense Department investigates serious allegations within National Guard units and whether the investigations are effective. Sen. Mark Begich would increase the role of the Pentagon's National Guard Bureau to order investigations into wrongdoing without waiting for a request from a state's governor or adjutant general.

Both lawmakers would increase the accountability to Washington of the National Guard -- typically a state agency heavily funded by the Pentagon. Guardsmen typically move between state and federal jurisdiction, depending on the mission.

The Alaska National Guard, for instance, plays a key role in the nation's missile defense by operating Fort Greely in the Interior, while several platoons of military police from the Alaska Guard recently returned from Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, where they guarded terrorism suspects.

Earlier this month, the National Guard Bureau's Office of Complex Investigations issued a report into sexual assault and harassment, fraud, reprisals and failures of leadership in the Alaska National Guard. The highly critical report led to the resignation of the Alaska Guard's top official, Maj. Gen. Thomas Katkus. Katkus had been adjutant general of the Guard since Nov. 9, 2009, and, as commissioner of the Alaska Department of Military & Veterans Affairs, was a member of Gov. Sean Parnell's cabinet. The governor is the civilian authority over the Guard -- its commander in chief.

The interaction of state and federal law governing the Guard is a key issue in the legislation proposed by Murkowski and Begich.

While the conduct of the regular military is governed by the Uniform Code of Military Justice and its criminal provisions, state law prevails over the National Guard in peacetime. Some states have adopted the federal code, but Alaska appears to have shunned it. According to the OCI report, the first Alaska code of military justice was written by the territorial legislature in 1955, when the future state had a sizable population of World War II and Korean War veterans who had been drafted into service.

The law, carried into statehood, decreed that all criminal violations in the Guard would be prosecuted by the civilian district attorney in a civilian court under civilian criminal code unless the violation was strictly military, like desertion or being drunk on duty. The harshest punishment a state court martial could deliver for even the worst military violation -- mutiny and sedition -- remains a $200 fine and a 60-day jail sentence. The OCI investigators could find no record of a state court martial ever being convened.

Murkowski, a Republican, filed her measure as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act and expects it to be heard when the Senate gets back to work after the election. She's asking the GAO, the independent congressional investigation agency, to spend up to a year studying how the National Guard polices its ranks and to clarify the roles of the inspectors general of the military services and the Defense Department in looking into Guard malfeasance. She also wants the GAO to study whether the Uniform Code of Military Justice should be extended to the Guard.

Begich, a Democrat, filed his measure as a stand-alone bill. It would clarify the authority of the chief of the Defense Department's National Guard Bureau to initiate investigations in a state even when the governor or adjutant general won't, or when state and federal law are in conflict. It directs final reports of the Office of Complex Investigations to be released in the same manner as Inspector General reports from the military branches or the Defense Department, which generally are made public though are heavily redacted.

Both senators have been highly critical of the situation that evolved in Alaska, in which problems festered for years without being addressed, though each has had a different target. Murkowski has blamed military officials for ignoring reports of sexual assault and harassment, while Begich has said Parnell failed to initiate a timely investigation.

According to documents and interviews, whistleblowing officers and enlisted personnel in the Alaska Guard had been complaining to the top brass about sexual crimes, fraud, drug use, theft and other misconduct since 2010, shortly after Parnell appointed Katkus adjutant general. Katkus is a former Anchorage police captain, and one of the whistleblowers alleged he was protected by the Anchorage Police Department, one of the civilian agencies that would investigate crimes in the Guard under state law.

The whistleblowers also met with Parnell and his staff, and followed up with emails starting in 2010.

In 2012, Begich asked the chief of the National Guard Bureau to investigate. The next year, Murkowski called on the Defense Department's inspector general to look into reports of sexual assaults in the Alaska Guard.

Nearly eight months later, on Feb. 28, 2014, Parnell asked for help from the Office of Complex Investigations. He said later that he didn't call for help sooner because the allegations he heard were too vague.