Maj. Gen. William Cooley, the former commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory, will face court-martial on a sexual assault charge, marking the first time the Air Force has ever opted to prosecute a general officer on the issue.
Cooley is accused of making unwanted sexual advances toward a civilian woman, kissing and touching her through her clothes while off duty in Albuquerque, N.M., in August 2018. The two-star general also faces allegations that he made the woman touch him sexually through his clothing, without her consent. The woman is not a military employee.
He faces one charge under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, spanning three acts of sexual assault as described by the code’s Article 120. The trial date has not yet been scheduled.
“After a comprehensive review of all of the evidence from the investigation and the Article 32 preliminary hearing, I’ve informed Maj. Gen. Cooley of my decision to move his case to general court-martial,” said Air Force Materiel Command boss Gen. Arnold Bunch in an announcement Wednesday. “I can assure you this was not a decision made lightly, but I believe it was the right decision.”
Cooley lost his job at AFRL on Jan. 15, 2020, after nearly three years in the post, following an Air Force Office of Special Investigations inquiry into the misconduct allegations. He then became Bunch’s special assistant, handling the Air Force’s technology innovation efforts.
A senior military judge reviewed the case at a preliminary hearing that began Feb. 8 to determine if there was probable cause that Cooley violated the UCMJ. The defense argued Cooley fell victim to a “conspiracy” to end his career after a consensual romantic encounter, the Dayton Daily News reported. Cooley has denied that he and the woman touched each other, other than the kiss.
Government counsel countered that Cooley’s claims of honesty conflicted with earlier statements made to investigators and his accuser.
The judge sent an undisclosed recommendation on whether the case should proceed to Bunch, who made the final call to begin a court-martial.
“The Air Force trial judiciary will identify a senior military judge and coordinate timing and venue for the court-martial proceeding,” according to an AFMC release. “Jurors, or court members, must either be officers of higher rank, or equivalent grade but with an earlier date of rank to the accused.”
Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for military sexual assault victims that has worked on the case, said Wednesday he believes the decision to move to court-martial means the case against Cooley is strong.
“All the services are under a lot of scrutiny right now, when it comes to sexual assault and how well they do or don’t handle it. I think in the past, this type of allegation would have resulted in … getting a slap on the wrist and being told to retire,” said Christensen, a former chief prosecutor for the Air Force. “So, I do think it’s a change in the way … they’re dealing with it at the very highest levels.”
He noted last year that Cooley would need to be tried by eight three- or four-star generals, or two-star generals who have served longer.
Finding a group of impartial general officers who don’t know Cooley or are unfamiliar with the case could prove tricky, he added. It may spur the Air Force to bring in retired generals or senior officers from the other armed services.
In 1992, Maj. Gen. Donald Kaufman was arraigned as part of a court-martial, but his case was dismissed and never went to a jury, Air Force spokesperson Ann Stefanek said. Kaufman, who faced allegations of taking enemy AK-47 assault rifles as trophies from the Gulf War, was demoted to the rank of colonel and retired.
Bringing a high-ranking officer to court-martial can create some uncomfortable moments for a system that views generals with deference, Christensen said: The judge must treat Cooley as they would anyone else.
“It’s going to be important that whoever is detailed to be the lead prosecutor in this case has the experience and gravitas not to be overwhelmed by the fact that that person can be cross-examining a two-star general, or … someone even more senior who’s testifying on the general’s behalf,” he said.
If convicted, Cooley would face a sentence ranging from no repercussions to removal from the service, Christensen added. He is presumed innocent until found guilty.
Christensen hopes the example set by this case will encourage victims to report sexual assault, particularly in situations where they are outranked by the accused.
“I’m not naïve to think that Gen. Cooley is the only general officer that would have done something like this,” he said. “If you’re a junior enlisted, junior officer, and you’ve been sexually assaulted by a general officer, or sexually harassed, it can be very difficult to come forward.”
Correction: The story has been updated to show that this is the first time an Air Force general officer will face court-martial for a sexual assault charge. It is not the first time an Air Force general has faced court-martial.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.