USAFA Informant Story, A Leadership Black Hole (Update:15 Dec)

Posted on: December 12th, 2013 by Will Rodriguez 4 Comments

A scandal brewing at the Air Force Academy has come full circle.  It features pathetic decision making, a lack of moral courage, leadership by coercion, abandoning of one’s troops, then silence, deny and counter accuse.  When the furor didn’t die down the leadership decided to take charge of what they weren’t aware of before, investigate those that executed their poor orders before and eliminate the program that was put in place while crossing their fingers that this will be enough to satisfy the press.  The Colorado Springs Gazette broke the story here.

Racked by huge sexual assault and drug incidents the Air Force Academy let the Office of Special Investigations (OSI), an Air Force undercover law enforcement unit loose on the cadets to develop informants.  Four have been identified but there could be dozens.  These cadets were pressured to become informants, some after long interrogations without counsel. They were instructed to infiltrate, observe, record and inform on fellow officer candidates involved in drug and sexual assault incidents. They were told that the cadet honor code “We Will Not Lie, Steal Or Cheat, Nor Tolerate Among Us Anyone Who Does”  did not apply and were instructed to break cadet regulations to maintain proximity to suspect cadets. 

OSI promised the cadets they would be protected from punishment for their actions but must maintain the strictest confidence telling no one of their OSI relationship and destroying e-mails showing a link.  They signed non-disclosure statements that threatened jail time for revealing their actions.  The cadets eventually found themselves expelled for numerous regulation infractions.  OSI did not protect them and in fact abandoned them.  The OSI and Air Force officials initially refused comment.  OSI took the position it does not divulge investigative techniques.  The Air Force Chief of Staff said he was unaware of the program.  As the local paper “The Gazette” reported and the controversy exploded the Air Force Academy Superintendent said she wasn’t aware before but would “now oversee the confidential informant program at the academy…”.  The Academy tried to shift blame, issuing a statement that the lead cadet involved racked up enough demerits to be expelled before he started working as an informant.   That the Air Force thinks that may absolve them of their actions demonstrates how deep the problem is.  With the news not getting better, the Superintendent today stated she will review the “disenrollment process” and intends to “eliminate the need for cadet confidential informants in the cadet wing.”

This is a classic leadership failure and senior leader damage control from the top down.  Unable/unwilling to address the problem with hands on leadership, commanders chose the easy way and let the dogs of UCMJ loose with FBI like tactics on cadets because they were embarrassed.  Cadets, mostly naive college student officer candidates at the institution that’s supposed to be the vanguard for Air Force Officer values are taught to become informants.  After achieving quick results to please superiors the cultivated informants are tossed aside.  A year later after ignoring requests for redress the press gets a hold of the story.  The Academy/Senior Officer’s knee jerk reaction?  “No comment”, “unaware of what’s going on” and shift blame to the expelled cadets.  With the furor not dying down the officer in charge says she’s now going to be in charge (who was in charge before?), work to end the program, look at disenrollment procedures and ask the IG to investigate the law enforcement that did as they were told.  It would have been much easier to do the right thing in the first place.  Now the Generals have their fingers crossed this will do the trick as they look for more fall guys in the OSI.  The Air Force has much to be proud of here.

What kind of leader takes the above actions?  There are three possible answers.  A leader that does not understand the role of the Academy honor code in the development of leaders as well as the impact of creating a group of informants on the fabric of an organization whose job is to create Air Force leaders.  This leader should not be in charge of an Academy.  Second, a leader ok with achieving results at any cost  and then covering up those techniques with no concern for the impact of those decisions on his unit.  Again, leaders with a “results at any cost” philosophy are probably not the leaders we want at a service Academy.  Thirdly, a leader at the Air Force’s premier leadership development organization that is uncomfortable or incapable of creating a climate where drug use and sexual assault aren’t acceptable standards of behavior where cadets report incidents of their own free will.  This is obviously not the leader needed at the Air Force’s premier leadership institution.

What should have happened at the outset was hands on leadership.  When an Academy has sexual assault and drug issues there are bigger core issues at stake than just breaking the law.  There’s a soul sucking lack of integrity and moral courage in the institution.  Officers should have taken cadets aside and asked them if that’s what they stand for.  More supervision, urinalysis tests and less partying in often officer & parent sanctioned off post party houses was required, maybe even bringing in more cadre.  It takes time, it takes effort, it takes discipline and it takes leadership.  Officers at all levels failed.  Instead of doing the hard work they called in OSI to use techniques that destroy the cohesion of units and at this place, made a mockery of the institution that should be the altar of officer values for the Air Force.  Best case they severely damaged the moral development of every class at the Academy while this is going on and every class to enter for three to four years at least until every class present at the Academy during this event graduates.   

There exists a widespread misunderstanding of Academy honor code, a key moral development system and tool at all the academies.  The OSI agents used the honor code to leverage the cadets in becoming informants.  The fact is Academy honor codes aren’t there to enforce regulations or create environments of trust.  Academy honor codes don’t exist to eliminate lying, cheating or stealing.    They exist to create LEADERS that don’t lie, cheat or steal and most importantly don’t accept it.  They are a cornerstone system and tool to create leaders with integrity.  Trust and cohesion are positive side effects.  They are not the reason.  Many organizations have these in abundance.  They do not necessarily have honor codes.  The code is there to help cadets develop a personal code of honor, living and enforcing standards that will serve them later as leaders.   

Further, the honor code is not to be used to enforce regulations.  One runs the risk of teaching a cadet the wrong lesson.  Asking an individual with no evidence is akin to an illegal search.   The lesson here is that violating cadet regulations does not tarnish one’s honor while breaking the honor code does.  The OSI agents misapplied the honor code to manipulate the cadets. 

Academy honor codes ESPECIALLY the toleration clause, teach cadets loyalty to the organization supercedes loyalty to each other.  This is a FUNDAMENTAL requirement of officers who must command in such a manner where they do not tolerate dishonorable behavior in their organization and more importantly report it when they can’t fix it.  Without this fundamental principle one will have dysfunctional organizations were the norm will be to take care of each other before the larger organization creating pockets where substandard behavior can flourish.

Contrary to popular belief, the most important part of honor codes is the toleration clause.  Without a toleration clause, cadets are only responsible for their own behavior vs. enforcing a standard.  Toleration clauses make cadets learn how to confront each other when someone is potentially not living up to a code they are supposed to be living.  These are fundamental skills leaders must have, the ability to confront and the will to enforce.   

“Non-toleration” is not equal to “ratting” and it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of an honor code when one confuses the two.  Simply put if you have an organization where some don’t live the values the code is worthless. So I taught it as you aren’t “ratting” on someone. You are enforcing the standard. That’s what leaders do and especially when it’s hard and not popular.  It undermines honor codes and the whole moral development of cadets when “non-toleration” gets applied to the enforcement of regulations.   The honor code talks to lying, cheating, stealing and tolerating as a developmental tool.  Using the code that’s most common sanction is expulsion and using it to enforce shoe shining dilutes the code and makes it an ineffective developmental tool.    

As discussed, the Air Force Academy has some severe integrity, values and leadership issues.  They are far from being the only one.  Navy has also had some jaw droppingscandals itself and while West Point hasn’t had the same types of huge scandals the numbers are far from comforting.  The service academies are microcosms of the military but they are the institutions were the core values for each branches’ officers are enshrined and many of the same issues plague the larger force.  The problem is by applying band aides or solutions that contradict basic service values we risk enshrining approaches that are morally wrong and will eventually bring forth a harvest that will destroy our military. We should remember the destructive nature of black holes.  They cause the most visible activity when they are devouring everything, warp reality and otherwise produce nothing positive.  

Update: 15 December 2013

In a week Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, the Superintendent of the Air Force Academy went from “no comment”, and “no knowledge of the OSI program”


“Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson will now exercise oversight of the confidential informant program…”

“Thomas racked up more than enough demerits to be expelled before he started working for OSI as an informant.”


Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson said she will review the academy’s disenrollment process and that she intends to “eliminate the need for cadet confidential informants in the cadet wing.”

“In addition, as the Air Force’s Academy Superintendent, I have directed an executive Review of the Academy’s disenrollment process.

“As we work to improve and strengthen our culture of commitment and respect, I personally will oversee any use of the (confidential informant) program with my long term intent to eliminate the need for cadet confidential informants.”

To the latest…

The Air Force Academy superintendent plans a top-to-bottom review of admissions, recruiting, graduation and disenrollment

She said in order to resolve the situation, “the Air Force needs to be transparent about the activities of the local OSI commander. They need to provide the truth about cadet (confidential informants).”

“Gen. Johnson said up front that she hears and feels the graduate rage. Then she said, ‘Please remember that I am a grad too,’ ” the email said. “The Supt. has told the OSI that she will not defend their program. That’s their job.”

In the last several days, the academy has made several statements about the informant program. Initially, the academy said Thomas was rightfully expelled and was not officer material, and defended the program as “vital.” Then, in her meeting with graduates, Johnson cited two of the convictions in which Thomas was involved as examples of why the program may be worth keeping.

Also on Thursday, Johnson sent an email directly to graduates, responding to their concerns.

“We do not condone any violation of the Honor Code in support of (confidential informant) operations,” she wrote. “The gist of this is trust. Cadets must have trust in their institution and in their fellow cadets. I am working to improve and strengthen our culture of commitment and respect, I will personally oversee any use of the CI program with my long term intent to eliminate the need for cadet Confidential Informants in the cadet wing.”

What you are observing is a Superintendent looking for a spin that works. 

The latest comments are most troubling.  Ignoring for the moment the ramifications that the General first said the wasn’t aware of a program in effect in her unit, she now simultaneously says she will personally oversee a program while letting the OSI explain what they did.  I can tell you from an officer’s perspective this is unprofessional.  One is either responsible and in charge or not.  This is the best of both worlds, positioning oneself for future success while simultaneously attempting to distance oneself from previous events that ALSO occurred on your watch.

An observation to keep in mind as this fiasco continues to unwind.  I can’t speak for the Air Force but the Army’s CID does not work independent of an investigated unit’s chain of command.  Commanders are notified down to the lowest level practicable (at least BN) and are only not informed if they are obstructing the investigation or is part of the lawlessness (in both cases the suspect commander’s superior is notified).  If the Air Force’s OSI can operate independent of any unit’s chain of command you would in effect have an organization that supersedes any organization’s authority in the Air Force.   That’s a chilling thought.

(The author is a USMA graduate who served four years as a tactical officer at West Point. ”Tacs” are the cadet’s primary leader developer. Besides managing each cadet’s military, physical and academic development, they also serve as primary instructors of the cadet honor code.)

Be Respectful, Candid and Pertinent. No Posers, No Trolls…
  • YankeePapa

    As posted elsewhere:
    …In 1967 I was commissioned as a Cadet 2nd Lt. in a
    Marine Corps high school cadet program after serving two years.  Our
    senior Marine instructor presented me with a gift at the ceremony… a
    copy of the 1964 Marine Corps Officer’s Guide.  
    was almost nothing tactical in it.  Chapters on leadership… personal
    responsibility… personal admin and so on.  However… in the section
    regarding reporting to a new command, there was one major piece of
    tactical advice…
    …When reporting to a new command in
    the field, officers were told to… if at all possible… avoid taking
    command of a unit deployed in the face of the enemy “near or after
    …In the Korean war a number of careers were
    destroyed because some new lieutenant had to take over a platoon on some
    hilltop after dark.  The enemy hit and he was just a stranger shouting
    in the dark… If the hill was not held… usually his record would show
    that he was responsible for its loss.  Pretty grim and decidedly
    unfair… but he took command and whatever happened was his
    …So you have Generals in air conditioned
    offices who have large staffs to keep them informed… who go to “Gold
    Collar” parties in Washington and spend time on the golf course… who
    have no clue what their commands are doing…  
    …They have every advantage that the lieutenant on No Hope Hill did not.  Should they get a walk…?

    16 hours, 56 minutes ago on

  • YankeePapaYes, not everyone has access to SOFREP

  • Tango9

    majrodYankeePapaheh.  Some of us aren’t welcome there anymore.

  • Pingback: Air Force IG fails Cadet Informant » Grunts and Co()