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Military may downgrade crime of adultery

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Officials at the Pentagon have proposed downgrading the crime of adultery in the military's justice system, a recognition that, in at least some ways, the military world should not really be so different from the civilian, authorities said.

After a year of internal debate, a committee appointed by Defense Secretary William Cohen has drafted changes to the Manual for Courts Martial that would result in fewer prosecutions and impose a less serious discharge upon convictions, officials said.The proposed changes have stirred opposition within the armed services, where some officers view them as a direct challenge to military discipline, and the report could still be blocked.

"A lot of people feel this sends the wrong signal," one military officer said, speaking, like the others, on the condition of anonymity.

Adultery would remain a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, just as it remains a crime on the books in roughly half the states, but the proposed changes would clarify the circumstances in which adultery should be prosecuted.

Officers could still face dismissal if convicted by a court-martial, but new rules would urge commanders to file charges only when the adultery has disrupted the morale or smooth functioning of a military unit, officials said. The rules would also discourage prosecutions for adulterous affairs that occurred long ago and have no bearing on current service.

For enlisted personnel, the maximum punishment for a conviction of adultery would be reduced to a bad-conduct discharge, instead of the more serious dishonorable discharge, which revokes all benefits.

The proposed changes, if approved, would bring the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps much closer in line with the corporate world.

As Pentagon officials described the proposed changes, an officer who had a discreet affair that in no way affected the military or his or her company would not be subjected to criminal prosecution. On the other hand, someone having an affair with a married subordinate could severely upset morale and discipline, and that person could face prosecution.

Adultery prosecutions, by themselves, are rare. In the Air Force last year, for example, only 39 of 969 courts-martial included charges of adultery, and in each of those cases, the accused faced other charges as well.