The story of a group of Air Force pilots witch hunted into personal and professional ruin based on misinterpretations of their private text messages has become national news. Rather than deal decisively with credible public reports of command misconduct, the service’s leaders ignored the story, which has now spiraled into an open conversation about whether fundamental rights and basic fairness are properly accommodated in today’s Air Force.
An Air Force Times article published earlier this week explored how easily the chain of command can “use crude or ironic text messages to damage [a] career,” reporting that “the pilots were punished because the Air Force deemed their texts to be unprofessional.”
But this analysis downplays the service’s actions. The real story is that private text messages were used, without corroboration, to substantiate actual drug abuse. This isn’t a story about the chain of command misinterpreting text messages and frowning upon airmen for sending them, notwithstanding that they were private and the individuals involved had every reason to expect they would remain private. That would be bad enough, but this situation is much worse.
This is a story about the chain of command developing unreasonable suspicion based on private messages, searching for evidence to support that suspicion, not finding it, and nonetheless condemning suspects with career-ending adverse actions, stripped livelihoods, and involuntary expulsion from service.
Even as it claims to be engaged in a clear-eyed and objective review of the situation, the Air Force is engaging in a public campaign to downplay credible reports of serious abuses of authority and instead develop and present a narrative of “unprofessional texting.”
Three pieces of evidence support this proposition.
The first is commentary from Lt. Col. Julie Huygen, a senior staff lawyer in the Air Force’s policy apparatus who, it should be noted, accompanied General Welsh to his recent meeting on this matter with Reps. Duncan Hunter and Adam Kinzinger. Quoted for the record in the Air Force Times article, Huygen remarked that
“[t]he idea of holding people accountable and responsible for things that they communicate — regardless of what method they use to communicate — is a longstanding proposition.”
Note the subtle shift. Huygen isn’t talking about whether texts alone can be proof of drug use. She’s instead setting forth a standard that anyone can be punished for anything said privately via any communication method, so long as a commander finds it subjectively inappropriate. Incidentally, this idea is pure garbage. But it’s also a way of craftily refocusing discussion away from command conduct and instead zeroing in on the “professionalism” of individuals subject to command authority.
Huygen went on to say that airmen must abide by Air Force Instruction (AFI) 1-1, which establishes the following (my emphasis):
“You must avoid offensive and/or inappropriate behavior on social networking platforms and through other forms of communication that could bring discredit upon on [sic] the Air Force or you as a member of the Air Force, or that would otherwise be harmful to good order and discipline, respect for authority, unit cohesion, morale, mission accomplishment, or the trust and confidence that the public has in the United States Air Force.”
Considering that Huygen would never have been permitted to speak on the record on this subject without endorsement from the highest levels of the Air Force, it’s clear she was trotted out to reinforce a broad notion of professionalism in private communications, which is a step down the path of portraying the punishments given to the “Molly Three,” as a reasonable exercise of command prerogative.
Huygen’s careful moves were reinforced by spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Karns, who said in an email response (again, my emphasis):
“[w]ith regard to personal cell phones and text messages, corrective action can certainly be considered and taken depending on the specific facts and circumstances. At all times and regardless of the form of communication, [a]irmen must avoid offensive or inappropriate behavior that could be harmful to good order and discipline, unit cohesion, mission accomplishment or bring discredit on the Air Force.”
He then provided me with a copy of the relevant verbiage from AFI 1-1, mimicking Huygen almost verbatim. This demonstrates that over the past several days, the service has deliberately staked out a public position that it reserves the right to punish based on private communication, which is another way of saying airmen serving in today’s Air Force have no expectation of privacy.
This is deeply offensive to basic civil liberties and free speech protections, but that’s not stopping Karns and Huygen, both of whom speak on behalf of the service, from attempting to lay the public groundwork to find the punishments given to the Laughlin officers somehow justified.
There’s a third piece of evidence showing the Air Force is more concerned with damage control than following its investigations wherever they may lead, and it’s more puzzling and unsettling than the first two.
In the wake of last week’s announcement that the Air Force was opening fresh inquiries into what happened at Laughlin, one of the “Molly Three” received a late-night text imposing upon him a mandatory meeting with an Air Force lawyer the next morning. The purpose of the meeting was supposedly to survey his testimony concerning a related Laughlin case being readied for court martial, and he was assured of testimonial immunity. But in the interview that followed, he was grilled almost exclusively about his own case, his own text messages, and his own actions. The lawyer, a regional prosecutor from San Antonio likely dispatched by Air Education and Training Command senior legal officials, argued with the officer about his culpability, going so far as to invoke and quarrel with media accounts of the situation.
Was this meeting really about a related case, or was it an attempt to “feel out” and understand further arguments that might be publicly made if the Molly Three get no remedy from the current process? More disturbingly, was this a rear guard effort to trip up one of the implicated officers — to get him to say something new or inconsistent from previous statements that might help exculpate officials currently under review for abuse of power (and their lawyers)?
Whatever the answers to these questions, the unusual meeting was also reckless. Browbeating a complainant whose complaint is currently the subject of an Inspector General inquiry ordered by the Chief of Staff could be construed as attempting to influence that inquiry, or seen as using the cover of a related investigation to intercede in a way that would be otherwise prohibited. Whether Welsh has been made aware of this intercession is not known, but to the extent he is aware, he should be gravely concerned.
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There are other aspects of the recent statements of Huygen and Karns worth flagging here.
Huygen claimed, speciously, that Letters of Reprimand (LORs) are not always career-ending. For evidence, she offered that it’s not impossible to find a senior enlisted airman in today’s Air Force who received an LOR early in his or her career. There are at least two obvious flaws in this evidence.
First, it ignores the fact that today’s senior enlisted members would have been reprimanded “early in their careers” in the 1990s, when it was still possible to survive non-criminal mistakes. That former culture has been replaced by a zero-tolerance, zero-mistake climate that condemns minor missteps. That this is the way the Air Force does things today is unmysterious to anyone paying even cursory attention.
Second, Huygen totally brackets officers out of her response, likely a knowing omission given that including them would have been fatal to her claim. Officer LORs are mandatory, permanent fixtures in a performance record and spell almost certain doom at an individual’s next promotion or retention board. An LOR is a ticket to career death row, leaving open only the question of how much time will pass before the sentence is carried out.
Huygen’s attempt to take the sting off LORs can be seen as yet another way of downplaying the actions of the chain of command in this case, which could be a step toward trying to spare those wayward commanders involved.
Equally concerning is the opacity with which the fresh inquiry ordered by Welsh is being carried out. Spokesman Karns provided the following via email:
“Good order and discipline are fundamental to a successful fighting force. Commanders are expected to hold members accountable for their actions, while ensuring due process and equitable treatment are appropriately applied in every case. Commanders take this responsibility very seriously. An allegation of mistreatment is reviewed at multiple levels and the Laughlin cases are no exception. At the request of the Air Force Chief of Staff, the Air Force Inspector General has begun an inquiry of the investigative process and the procedures used to administer any adverse personnel actions. Upon completion of the IG Inquiry, a general officer will independently review the final adjudication and resulting outcome of each member’s administrative case.”
I asked, in a follow-up message, if the Air Force would say which general officer will conduct the independent review, whether that officer would be empowered to provide appropriate remedies, and whether the review would be made public consistent with classification and privacy considerations.
Karns would not name the officer or say whether s/he would be authorized to make right any noted wrongs. In the absence of any falsifiable details about the investigation, it remains entirely an internal Air Force matter, and thus unaccountable, much like the reviews at “multiple levels” Karns mentioned, which in this case failed to produce an appropriate result. Airmen have lost trust in the notion of multi-layered reviews when those reviews happen within the same chain of command, because — not being stupid — they know senior commanders work together, are biased in favor of one another, and are averse to overturning punishments they themselves often pushed, sponsored, or endorsed personally or through the advice of their attorneys.
A closed process free from any meaningful public scrutiny leaves open the possibility of an investigation or findings doctored for public release in order to support favored narratives. If Welsh were truly interested in a genuine truth-seeking exercise, why wouldn’t he invite more public scrutiny and accountability by providing a little more detail?
Is the Air Force using public relations to soften the anticipated public blow attendant to sticking with the wrongful condemnation of three of its officers? Is it doing this because it wants to avoid the comparatively greater injury to public confidence that would accompany admitting some of its most senior officers and their legal advisors got this entire case terribly wrong, trampling the Constitution in the process?
We mere commoners will find out the answers when the Air Force deigns that we should, if ever. Meantime, it’s fair to wonder why General Welsh has chosen a circuitous and increasingly rocky path to what should be an obvious endgame: retract the wrongful reprimands, re-affix the wings, kill the discharge paperwork, discipline the wayward commanders, and send everyone back to work.
Each day that this doesn’t happen deepens not only the injustice of this situation, but the public embarrassment of it.
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