Air Force Dorm Policies Trigger Abuses, Invasions of Privacy

Lord of the Flies

Last week, we brought you the inside scoop on how video surveillance cameras installed in the dormitories at Osan Air Base under the guise of “safety” are actually being used for criminal surveillance, with the ultimate goal of controlling and scripting the lives of dormitory dwelling airmen.

In the days since that story went public, we’ve heard dozens of stories directly from airmen at Osan and elsewhere sharing, in detail, the use of video surveillance for proactive witch-hunting of airmen for trivial infractions. These witch hunts are based on the subjective judgments of NCOs reviewing video footage without important context necessary to judge accurately what they’re seeing. These video reviews are done not with a neutral orientation, but with the objective of uncovering punishable conduct and reporting it to a chain of command poised to respond with an approving pat on the head.

The results are absurd. 

In one case, an airman who borrowed billiard balls from one dorm to use them in another was given a Letter of Reprimand and an Unfavorable Information File (UIF) for theft, despite the fact he didn’t deprive the government of any property. 

In another case, an airman was formally reprimanded for assault because video footage made it appear he “looked like” he wanted to fight with another airman. What the video didn’t show was that the other airman was provoking the situation with a relentless stream of racial slurs. 

Others have been counseled or reprimanded for uniform infractions, loud music, and even running in the hallway. Documentation of these trivialities leads to non-trivial consequences such as degraded performance reports, foregone promotion opportunities, and denied reenlistments … with spycam video as the catalyst and sole basis for disciplinary action.

This is small stuff … stuff about which no complaints were filed, and about which the chain of command would never have known had NCOs not been sitting in front of computer screens poring over footage chronicling the private lives of adult military volunteers in their supposedly private living spaces. But small or not, it’s driving outsize consequences for individuals … and as awareness is raised, for the entire service. No one in his or her right mind with any choice in the matter will sign up to be treated like this.

I’m told the prime mover in the Osan crackdown is former Command Chief Terrence Greene, who has reportedly established an expectation that Airman Dorm Leaders (ADLs, or “dorm managers” in the old days) proactively seek out and crack down on any and every instance of rule violation — no matter how trivial — they can discern (or believe themselves to be discerning) using the video footage. The result is a spike in disciplinary engagements impacting otherwise strong airmen, and plummeting morale among not just the actual few troublemakers, but everyone. This is unsurprising. Collective responsibility is problematic enough … but an environment of blanket distrust and pre-judgment is positively toxic. 

If Greene is the catalyst for the policy, he appears to have taken it with him when he was promoted to 5th Air Force Command Chief. Here’s a particularly concerning account shared by a dorm resident from Kadena Air Base in Japan:

Our ADL uses [the video system] to keep tabs on everyone in the dorms. He will brag about knowing everything about the coming and goings of all 200 people who live in the dormitory. He knows who is dating, who is hanging out, who drinks, who does laundry at 2AM … everything. This is at the very least odd, but it’s just one of the millions of ways the lines between our private and professional lives are blurred by our leadership.

Here is where things start to bother me though. There are five airmen who are “elected” (hand-picked by the First Sergeant and ADL) to serve on the Dorm Council. Though they have titles (like President and Secretary) and some duties, their main job is to act as a de facto gestapo for leadership. They have access to the surveillance system at any time, in addition to the card keys to get into anyone’s room, which they are allowed to enter at any time. It is one thing to have an NCO have that power, but it’s something entirely different when they give that power [to peer level airmen].

Yes, what you are thinking is true. That power given to those five individuals has caused all the issues you would think giving that amount of power to five 20-year-olds would. No one complains about it anymore, it’s just a way of life. During the weeks leading up to the base Dorm Competition, it’s par for the course to come into our rooms after work and see our personal belongings moved around with notes from the council members in charge of our floors telling us to dust something or make sure our laundry baskets are not out.

This is jaw-dropping stuff. Someone coming into your room and rearranging it while you’re at work? No one signs up for that, and it’s just flat-out unacceptable.

This airman goes on to lament how different service life is from what he expected when he signed up, and made it clear that although he’s a strong performer, he’s basically counting the days until his enlistment ends. As a guy who rounding the final corner of my first enlistment fired up to extend and deepen my commitment to the institution as much as it would permit, it saddens me personally to see the service turning off young airmen in this way … and through the commission of such obvious and preventable idiocy by people who know better.

The alienation of our best and brightest by such a policy should surprise no one. There are several ethical and legal departures in this rendition of dorm life. It’s unacceptable for a dorm manager to develop pattern-of-life surveillance on dorm residents. It’s certainly not acceptable for an ad hoc “council” of residents to have unsupervised access to the private living spaces of airmen, or to enter the rooms of fellow residents when those residents aren’t home. There are legal bars to such intrusions, but they needn’t be enumerated here … because they are obvious.

It’s bad enough that today’s Air Force seeks a sickening level of control over the personal lives of its people, and that it substitutes gross micromanagement for the mutual trust that must inhere on any team worth the label. But it’s downright bizarre that the same SNCOs and officers seeking inappropriate control would then delegate the means of effectuating it to an unqualified and un-entitled mob riven with conflicts of interest, competing motivations, and a painfully predictable inability to responsibly wield personal power over peers. This not only invites disaster, it makes a sad joke of the concepts of privacy, dignity, and individual agency.

The predictable result of excessive delegation within a construct of excessive supervision … is the devolution of the environment into a primitive “Lord of the Flies” dynamic, where the temptations of power overwhelm underdeveloped judgment, triggering serial violations of social norms and legal boundaries. It’s a recipe for mischief. It’s also a remarkable stroke of irony … the employment of inappropriate trust in the advancement of a system of inappropriate distrust.

This is the part where we ordinarily call upon the generals, the chiefs, and Congress to do something about an obviously wrong situation. But in this case, is there really any expectation that the same people who are emplacing and enforcing this system will do anything to remedy it? 

The answer to that question is the same answer to the question whether an independent Air Force is likely to survive the coming wave of defense reform … and the question of whether it deserves to do so.

If this brand of nonsense existed in the 1990s, I’d have never re-enlisted, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend any young American sign up to be treated as s/he might expect in the North Korean military.

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