Congress Demands Answers from Air Force on Laughlin Witch Hunt

Screen Shot 2015-09-16 at 3.43.51 PM

Over the last several weeks, we’ve chronicled the unfolding of a command-directed witch hunt at Laughlin Air Force Base. Like all witch hunts, it started with good intentions before detaching from responsible limits on power and paving a narrow road to hell.

What started as an inquiry into an unprofessional relationship between a male instructor and a female student (who has since, incidentally, been recommended for a return to flying status) spiraled into an out-of-control fishing expedition that abused civil liberties and ignored due process en route to unsupported findings that nonetheless stand to ruin the lives of several officers. On the basis of suspicion alone, arising from joking text messages obtained by authorities on the basis of questionable search warrants, several officers were reprimanded and grounded on charges of illegal drug use. They now face discharge proceedings.

Previous coverage of this distressing episode (which you can review here and here) was not enough to get senior service officials to take interest, much less intervene and right any clear wrongs. Not even the well-supported claim of trampled civil liberties was enough. But according to an official letter obtained by JQP, two prominent Congressmen are now investigating the matter and demanding the Air Force explain itself.

Reps. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) and Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) sent the letter to General Welsh yesterday, citing concerns about evidence and due process and asking the Chief of Staff to respond to a series of questions.

The two legislators, each a veteran with a reputation for holding the feet of the military services to the fire on issues of individual justice, told Welsh they believe investigators “painfully misunderstood” the scant evidence in the case.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL)
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL)

Without a single eyewitness, without any drug paraphernalia, and with each officer voluntarily submitting to a drug test (all of which came back clean), Hunter and Kinzinger argue the chain of command had “no grounds to proceed” with charges, and that doing so is inflicting “harmful impact on the integrity of the military justice system.”

Beyond pushing the service to answer for a noticeably troubled investigation, the two lawmakers went a little further, putting the Air Force on the spot by asking it to take a position on the merits of its own investigation:

“We also ask that the Air Force state whether it believes the actions taken against the pilots is warranted based on text messages, obtained from private cellphones, without any additional corroborating evidence.”

This can be seen as giving the service a chance to correct itself before a more formalized complaint or oversight process is initiated. As we’ve previously chronicled here, there are clear abuses in this case. This might be the Air Force’s last chance to correct those abuses before the situation erupts into another nationally visible misstep. Too many more of these in its law-and-order business, and the Air Force could lose control of its legal system, the legitimacy of which is already in question.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA).
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA).

The very fact that the Air Force has opened itself to charges this basic by falling so short of its duty is deeply worrisome, but unfortunately more prevalent over time. I’ve been arguing for a few years that, among many other problems, power in the Air Force has become imbalanced and excessively concentrated at the top of the rank structure, and that this imbalance is creating a service culture more closely resembling fascism than anything American. The trampling of civil liberties fits within this noticeable pattern, but that doesn’t make it less astonishing or important.

The letter from Hunter and Kinzinger comes against the backdrop of a startling new revelation in the Laughlin scandal.

JQP has learned that one of the warrants used to seize and search the cellphone of a drug use suspect was back-dated, having been signed after the search had already been conducted. The proof of this procedural foul is right on the face of the warrant itself, which was shown to JQP for this article. The warrant is dated August 12th, 2014 … but refers to a search already conducted on August 11th.

The officer in question, a Lieutenant, surrendered his cellphone on August 11th after being given a direct order by a Colonel to do so — an order he thought was lawful at the time. This came after the Lieutenant had repeatedly requested legal representation, yet his interrogation and the phone seizure barreled forward, heedless of due process, on the rails of an unlawful order.

After the search was completed, a military magistrate was consulted and the warrant produced, likely in an effort to provide an expedient cover for the apparently unlawful search.

Depending on whether there was a verbal warrant authorization, whether it was legally supported, and whether the accused was informed and afford the opportunity to review the warrant (given he had already asked for a lawyer), this might represent a flagrant disregard of basic protections entitled to those accused of criminal conduct.

In any case, the use of an order from the chain of command to seize a cellphone after the right to counsel had been invoked evinces a chain of command and law enforcement team either insufficiently trained, willfully afield from basic protocols, or both. The Air Force should, as it responds to Hunter and Kinzinger, open its own inquiry into the Laughlin investigation, holding accountable anyone who trampled the law rather than enforce it. Anything less will be insufficient to cure the wounds to legitimacy created by conduct this questionable on the part of empowered officials.

Gen. Mark Welsh, Chief of Staff of the Air Force.
Gen. Mark Welsh, Chief of Staff of the Air Force.

The Congressmen close their letter with some tough questions for Welsh, including how many officers were targeted in the Laughlin dragnet, how many phones were seized, who called the shots, and whether the service is comfortable that the evidence supports the punishments meted out. For the sake everyone involved — not least of all several officers being processed for discharged without proper foundation — let’s hope Welsh takes the questions seriously and answers them fulsomely.

Comments are closed.