Air Force Prepares Whitewash of Travis Debacle

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This is an update to the story of Mr. Oscar Rodriguez’s physical expulsion from a retirement ceremony at Travis Air Force Base earlier this month. Rodriguez had been invited by the honoree to speak during the folding of the American flag, but was assaulted and forcibly removed from the building by a group of NCOs reportedly acting on orders from the squadron commander, Lt. Col. Michael Sovitsky.

Once outside, Rodriguez had his complaints of unwanted contact ignored by responding law enforcement personnel and was directed to leave the area. He then filed a criminal complaint. 

Before updating you on the status of that complaint, I’m going to share the video footage again, along with links to prior coverage. I encourage and welcome you to forward this information to your representatives in each chamber of Congress along with your feelings on the matter. JQP will continue to publicize this video on a recurring basis until this situation is given the appropriate attention and response by the chain of command.

Click here for the original story. Click here for a follow-up that includes remarks from Chuck Roberson, the honoree who invited Rodriguez and had his retirement tribute ruined by a chain of command that has yet to so much as apologize. Click here for another update containing an exclusive interview with Oscar Rodriguez himself.

I wish there was somewhere you could click to get the perspective of any of the commanders involved in this mess, but they continue to evade and stonewall while claiming to be busily investigating. Information obtained by JQP tends to show just the opposite: officials are not taking this seriously and are setting up to sweep it under the rug while blaming the victim.

The good news is that a detective from the 60th Security Forces Squadron has been in contact with Mr. Rodriguez. The bad news is that three weeks after the incident occurred, the “investigation” appears plodding and unfocused. The questions being asked by the investigator have nothing to do with evaluating the injuries or impacts Rodriguez might have suffered. Nor are the questions focused on establishing the fact pattern of how he was assaulted. The investigator hasn’t even identified the assailants, and literally asks Rodriguez if he knows their names — this despite the existence of video evidence, the presence of dozens of eyewitnesses, and more than enough time to have conducted the necessary interviews.

The questions posed to Rodriguez are mainly focused on whether he had a legitimate right to be at the ceremony, something that has already been factually solidified in the public record. He was an invitee whose presence was planned and known to commanders in advance. The investigator also wants Rodriguez to explain why he refused to “sit” when told to do so by one of his assailants … a fact of absolutely zero significance in determining whether the minions who ejected him like bar bouncers behaved unlawfully.

Most damningly, no questions were posed about potential witness tampering or obstruction, even after it was reported that commanders ordered attendees at the ceremony to destroy any video records they captured of the ill-fated event.

This is not what a professional investigation looks like. Interviews are not conducted by email. Police don’t take three weeks to establish the identities of key witnesses and persons of interest, and they don’t react casually to the possibility that their investigations are being actively impeded. This is what foot-dragging and a whitewash-in-progress look like, and it is outrageous that commanders are permitting it.

More than that, they seem to be actively endorsing and silently approving Sovitsky’s decision to place the flexing of his own power above the wishes of a retiring NCO. Sovitsky has reportedly been promoted to Deputy Commander of the 349th Maintenance Group in the three weeks since the incident occurred.

One person who has said and done nothing in response to the incident — save for promoting a commander who is or should be under investigation for giving an unlawful order to assault a civilian — is Col. Raymond Kozak, commander of the 349th Air Mobility Wing.

Col. Raymond Kozak
Col. Raymond Kozak

Long-time members of the JQP audience will recall a previous story involving Kozak, who as commander of Dover’s 512th Air Mobility Wing placed “fly the jets” 18th on his list of wing priorities.

Prioritizing the core mission behind ancillary functions is one manifestation of a broken chain of intent.

Also unacceptably silent on the issue is Col. Joel Jackson, who serves not only as the boss of Travis’ active duty 60th Air Mobility Wing, but as commander of the installation. By now, Jackson has undoubtedly seen the video and been briefed on the incident it documents, but has failed to act on the alleged assault of a civilian on his base. This is an abdication of his duty to step in and be the adult leader in a situation where others are behaving improperly. 

Travis Air Force Base, California Base Multimedia Center (707) 424-5584 DSN: 837-5584
Col. Joel Jackson

Every lawyer at Travis is also implicated, given that probable cause indicating the commission of several crimes is manifest in the video and supported by a criminal complaint urging charges. Their failure to act is an ethical failure as much as a legal one, and easily exposed by slightly altering the facts of the incident. What if, instead of Rodriguez, it had been a woman physically assaulted by five males?

While this is all happening, Lt. Col. Robert Couse-Baker, the unfortunate publicist given the task of dealing with media inquires about the incident and cover-up, is busily discussing publicity tactics in an online forum, where he dropped the following nugget of wisdom in a discussion of previous coverage of this story:

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Before anyone from the Public Affairs community starts wincing about my sharing this, the group within which it was shared has several thousands members and therefore zero expectation of privacy.

Also, it’s interesting to me that Erin Karl thinks it’s notable that a publicist was called out “by name.” Consider this an explicit rejection of the idea that those doing the Air Force’s talking for it (especially when they wear the rank of commissioned officers and NCOs) are entitled to remain behind an anonymous barricade. Part the healthy pressure exerted upon government representatives by public discourse is the knowledge that if they help the bureaucracy advance efforts to misrepresent or stonewall, the social costs of doing so will accrue as much to participating individuals as to the organization.

All that said, I’ll admit I don’t know really what Couse-Baker is saying here. I think what he wants his statement to mean is that traditional journalists were more patient and cordial than the comparatively unscrubbed “bloggers” who now cohabit the landscape of reportage. In the olden days, so the thinking goes, typewriter-wielding pillars of objectivity cooperated sanguinely with double-talking zampolits in shared furtherance of the greater good … even when it allowed the truth to die of old age without ever greeting the world.

Of course, that’s not really how things ever were, but romanticizing the days of yore is a typical coping mechanism for publicists of conscience who find themselves cogs in a lying machine.

But what his statement actually does is reinforce, quite correctly, that the media landscape has changed. Social media has exponentially accelerated the flow of information, leaving lumbering bureaucracies increasingly out of sync and trapped in a cycle of decay. By the time they get around to answering the first question, journalists have long since independently discovered the answer and fired off a dozen more questions. Wishing for the world to respect an artificial distinction between classes of reporters and to further adhere to a decades-old expectation that reporters should cooperate with official foot-dragging … makes a poor substitute for increasing the speed and accuracy of information. Once you get past lamenting how circumstances have changed, it becomes clear that adapting is the next step. 

Sure, it’ll mean agencies have less time to concoct Orwellian obfuscations, and fewer bureaucrats will have a hand in weaving a tapestry that looks true at first glance but is actually woven with intricate threads of mealy-mouthed misrepresentation. But this is all a good thing. Telling the truth is a great way to (re)gain credibility, and it also reduces the workload for publicists, commanders, lawyers, and FOIA denizens.

It’s also a moral, ethical, and legal duty, and a core tenet of public affairs, which purports to champion maximum disclosure with minimum delay.

I’m but a lowly blogger … but here’s the thing: I know the Air Force. To that end, I can say confidently that 90% of the questions the service refuses to answer are begging for honest answers that would do no harm to its image and whose provision would violate no legitimate law, rule, or policy.

Why don’t we see fulsome answers to easy questions more often? Because publicity staffs are run by the same sorts of people who arbitrarily decide they don’t prefer the content of someone else’s retirement ceremony and abuse their authority to compel others to disrupt the proceedings vi et armis. Air Force commanders too often let their egos get in the way of being ethical and operating according to common sense.

Until that changes, entropy will continue. And until the Air Force becomes responsibly transparent, things like the Oscar Rodriguez debacle, which could have been rendered moot with a swift public apology, a brief explanation, and appropriate discipline … will continue to tar the service’s image and degrade its credibility with airmen, Congress, and the general public. Trust me when I say that this proposition holds true whether it’s a journalist, a blogger, or the Avon Lady asking the questions.

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