The Air Force’s Public Affairs (PA) function has had a rough run of things lately, enduring the general hum of criticism from airmen who see too much PA coverage of senior leader visits, band performances, and ancillary issues, and not enough coverage of what airmen do to defend the nation from air and space. Frustration culminated recently when coverage of MSgt. Tom Case’s receipt of a second Silver Star was eclipsed by the Chief of Staff’s promotion of a dog to the rank of major.
But amid an ocean of commentaries about fitness and core values and a steady stream of PA stories featuring PA airmen, stories of substance occasionally emerge. Such a story surfaced over the weekend, when the online community took note of a curious retweet beamed out by the Air Force’s chief publicist, Brigadier General Kathleen Cook.
Cook, who assumed her post in March of this year, is a former bandsman and career publicist with no deployment experience who has spent the vast majority of her career advising leaders in the space and missile community. Having served in many posts proximate to communications practices developed during the Cold War might explain the nascent PA tendency toward propaganda, which seems more prevalent since she took over. Cook or her agents reportedly intervened in an unsuccessful attempt to disrupt the viral spread of a recent leadership essay by a Colonel that struck a nerve with airmen. Cook has also potentially chilled social media participation, reportedly encouraging airmen to steer clear of this blog while downplaying its significance. Ironically, it’s Cook’s own social media activity now raising questions.
Late Friday night, Cook’s Twitter account retweeted a message from Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, remarking that “The president has decided that the last two years of his term are going to be a disaster.” The jab was a reference to President Obama’s recent speech on immigration.
The message, which stood for 15 hours before being noticed, appears to portray the Air Force’s senior publicist using her official account to wade into the hyper-partisan immigration debate, something that would place her in violation of the Air Force’s social media policy as well as many fundamental customs of officer conduct.
Moreover, the words themselves could create jeopardy for her under Article 88 of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, which prohibits commissioned officers from using contemptuous words against the President. While the message is probably too mild to sustain such a charge, it’s startling that an officer of Cook’s stature would tempt scrutiny in such a way.
Then again, Cook claims she didn’t send out the tweet. Not long after it showed up on a number of social media sites popular with military members and affiliates, Cook posted the follow two messages, the first denying she sent the “errant” tweet and the second reporting it had been deleted.
Around the time Cook was erasing her tweet, one of her staff members began participating in comment threads, where he made further claims denying Cook’s involvement in error. Lt. Col. Christopher Karns, an Air Force spokesman who works for Cook, insisted she’d been on leave and had not been accessing her twitter account.
This claim seems questionable given that there was other activity on Cook’s account around the same time, including this retweet of a message from Lt. Gen Stephen Wilson, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command. This tweet remains visible on Cook’s account.
Also visible is a Washington Post story Cook favorited the same day.
The fact that the subject of the Post article is immigration — the same topic of the Megyn Kelly retweet — stretches the fabric of coincidence, and seems to upend the notion that Cook wasn’t using twitter at all during the period of time in question.
Cook and her staff have said she didn’t send the Kelly retweet, but they haven’t provided any explanation as to who did or how they got access to the twitter account of the Air Force’s chief communicator. The absence of an explanation has led to rampant speculation on social media outlets, generally conforming to three theories.
Some wonder if the General’s account might have been hacked (known in modern times as the “Anthony Weiner” defense). In the first instance, it’s not necessarily unreasonable to imagine a internet ne’er-do-well might employ technical skills to create troubles for a key Air Force leader. But then again, why would a hacker employ such skill using such a minimalist tactic? It seems more likely that a hacker would more fully exploit such hard-earned and high-impact access by doing more than sending out a single moderately troublesome tweet before receding into the nethersphere, leaving an easy cleanup job for the putative victim.
Cook’s own response demonstrates she probably doesn’t buy the hacker theory either. She hasn’t taken her account offline, started an investigation, or admonished followers to be wary of delinquent tweets from her account, the things we’d normally expect under such a theory.
If not a hacker, perhaps the error was committed by a wayward staffer with account access. This seems more plausible, even if it wouldn’t completely exculpate Cook given that she alone is responsible for account output. It’s not clear how many staffers use Cook’s twitter account on her behalf, with Karns saying “multiple people” have access and a different, anonymous source claiming only Cook and her executive officer can get into it.
Cook’s account (@USAFPABoss) is infrequently used, raising the question of whether there would be any need for her subordinate staff to have access. It’s also noteworthy that this incident happened just a week after her account started following Kelly’s male doppleganger Sean Hannity, though this too could be a coincidence. At any rate, if one of her staffers screwed up, it should be easy enough for Cook to figure it out and say so. The fact she hasn’t could reflect that she knows it wasn’t a staffer.
And this leads to the third major theory, which holds that Cook inadvertently sent the tweet herself, perhaps believing she was logged into her personal account rather than her official one. This theory is best supported by the facts, including Cook’s refusal thus far to explain what happened. Admitting she accidentally did this herself would be admitting to a personal political bias that could prove professionally unhelpful. Of course, it would also show moral courage and thus ennoble Cook, but not without the potential for adverse consequences — which Air Force general officers are loath to accept.
Whether one of these theories is accurate or the actual circumstances differ, General Cook owes her multiple audiences a clear accounting of how it came to be that her twitter account generated an anti-Obama political message. This is important for a few reasons.
The first is public perception. General Cook speaks for the Air Force. Media outlets comprise a considerable percentage of her nearly 1,200 followers. It’s not acceptable that her twitter audience could perceive she has a loyalty problem when it comes to carrying out the President’s immigration policy, or that she might be encouraging dissension on this issue using the official tools of her post. She must forcefully distance herself from any such perception, and her two superficial tweets don’t accomplish that objective.
Second is accountability. General Cook is a public official, but she’s also an Air Force officer. Junior officers and enlisted members are routinely punished for social media transgressions far more mild than this one, unless they can demonstrate innocence or are willing to take responsibility for errors. Activity from Cook’s account, even if undertaken by a subordinate, is her responsibility. Her effective leadership of the more than 5,500 people comprising the Air Force’s public relations enterprise demands that she be accountable, which means being forthright and owning her mistake.
Finally, transparency demands an explanation. The Air Force is a public agency and she is a senior public official. Cook is certainly entitled to the presumption of appropriate behavior, but that presumption is rebuttable and does not excuse her from explaining herself when her conduct raises doubts. When public resources are used to conduct an activity, that activity must hold itself out for public examination, and Cook is not exempt. Not only that, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James has committed herself to leading a maximally transparent institution. This means diagramming missteps for a public that deserves to know how its defense is effectuated.
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As Karns said recently, core values are non-negotiable. While the world scarcely trembles at what Kathleen Cook thinks of President Obama’s immigration policies, the level of integrity demonstrated in her response is centrally important. Many believe it’s simply not plausible that a wayward staffer could have accessed her account and engaged in this discriminately and weirdly errant activity, but that Cook would be incapable of rapidly understanding or explaining it in very short order. Her silence, together with her staff’s dissembling, are deeply damaging to her image as a general officer. Without a forthright explanation, audiences will likely conclude that she either doesn’t want to take responsibility or that she’s a clueless general. Either conclusion degrades her effectiveness.
This matters, because perhaps the most important question raised in this flap is whether the noticeable maladies of the Air Force PA community are related to a problem of focus at the top. Is PA covering the right things? Does it have the right focus? Is PA spending too much time propagandizing about the F-35, the nuclear enterprise, and budgetary issues and not enough energy highlighting airmen? Cook has a chance to address and ease these speculative questions, but only if she shows a leader’s courage.
Proffering unfalsifiable vagaries is the practice of politicians, not Air Force generals and definitely not those who speak for the entire service. As a public official, General Cook has a choice. Either elucidate her mistake with facts that can be challenged, or take the lumps that rightly accompany opacity, evasiveness, and stonewalling. Her audiences have cause to wonder whether she’s an anti-Obama hack masquerading as a loyal senior officer. The only way to refute that idea is for her to illuminate what happened.
This means more than stock damage control through her proxies. It means she has to lead, like generals are paid to do.