For the past several weeks, investigators have been reviewing disciplinary actions meted out by the chain of command against three instructor pilots at Laughlin Air Force Base in a case that has come to be known as “Miley Gate.”
The three were issued career-ending reprimands and processed for discharge after commanders found text messages on their private cellphones joking about drug use. Subsequent investigation found no evidence of actual drug activity and each officer passed drug tests, but former Laughlin boss Col. Brian Hastings nonetheless concluded there had been drug use and moved forward with punishments. He also grounded the pilots, citing their failure to meet “professional standards” in their private communications.
After spilling into public view here and elsewhere, the cases caught the attention of several legislators. Two subsequently met with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, insisting he look into allegations that Hastings and perhaps others higher in the chain of command trampled on civil liberties and abused their authority in punishing the three pilots, who have credibly asserted that their texts were nothing more than references to pop culture.
Welsh relented, calling for a fresh review of command actions. But something else happened concurrently that raised the stakes attached to the plight of the “Molly Three” — public pressure escalated in response to the seemingly blatant abuses of legal authority manifested in the case. Air Force inaction in response to that pressure fed perceptions that the service wasn’t sufficiently interested in pursuing a just outcome, and this fostered yet more negative attention.
Instigated by that most recent wave of coverage, which warned airmen that wayward texts could kill their careers, Welsh and his lawyers went into damage control mode. A statement was issued by one of his legal advisors essentially adopting the contention that airmen have no expectation of privacy in their communications.
Welsh then doubled down on the idea himself, laying out a broad and nebulous standard essentially giving commanders the legal foundation to punish airmen for inappropriate communications without respect to whether they were made publicly or in private. This seemed to create an enforcement predicate giving every NCO and officer the right to form probable cause of wrongdoing based on otherwise innocuous exchanges on social media and even in private texts and emails, just as had happened in the Miley Gate case.
In other words, even with the Laughlin mess under review, the Air Force’s senior leader has been unwilling to revise, explain, or clarify a statement of principle that seems to underpin exactly what led to some of the Laughlin abuses. He also hasn’t restored the flying status of the pilots involved, and the commander who reprimanded them remains in his position as commandant of one of the service’s professional schools.
Recently, the absurd and corrosive implications of Welsh’s doctrine have been exposed with increasing frequency and clarity. Two vivid examples stand out.
The first involves video footage in which Hastings recounts an episode of binge drinking. Taken out of context, it seems indicative of unacceptable conduct in violation of Welsh’s decree. While drawing such a conclusions seems shaky without more information, observers note that Hastings didn’t extend that same benefit of the doubt to the three instructor pilots he set out to destroy on the basis of unsupported suspicion. Many believe the video of him recounting his own foibles should be “sauce for the goose” and result in the same actions Hasting himself visited upon his subordinates under similar circumstances.
The second example, more recent, involves a facebook exchange between current and former members of the Laughlin leadership team, wherein they seem to joke about using drugs. It’s entirely reasonable to see the exchange as harmless, but this again invokes a double standard. The Laughlin pilots were not assumed to be engaged in harmless banter, and their explanations to that effect were left at the roadside along with their careers.
It’s this most recent example that caught the attention of Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), one of the two Congressmen who complained to Welsh that something about the Laughlin cases wasn’t right.
Today, Hunter sent Welsh a letter underscoring the importance of a correct outcome of the ongoing review in light of this recent example of online jesting about dropping acid among members of the Laughlin leadership team.
The apparent burr in Hunter’s saddle is a statement from spokesman Col. Sean McKenna, who responded when asked about the online exchange that “…leadership have spoken with the individual and they are handling the matter appropriately.” Hunter finds this explanation wanting, not because he believes the individuals involved should be punished more harshly — and in fact he disclaims that he believes they were innocently joking — but because otherwise, the Air Force will have created an unacceptable double standard allowing commanders to assign punishment arbitrarily. This would expose its administrative reprimand process as nothing more than a commander-wielded cudgel for the enforcement of personal suspicions, intuitions, and preferences.
Hunter wants to know why Welsh is tolerating such whimsy among commanders, and specifically why the three pilots were hounded to the edge of professional ruin for similar comments made on their private cellphones, as opposed to on a publicly viewable social media outlet.
Here’s Hunter’s full letter.
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We’re at a bizarre junction in the Air Force’s institutional history … one where the light-heartedness and banter that have always been part of squadron life are now frowned upon and sometimes criminalized. One where airmen not only walk on eggshells in their public lives, but are now expected to do the same in private. One where the generals charged with ensuring fairness — without which discipline is certain to crumble — are receiving lessons on the topic from lawmakers who shouldn’t need to intervene on such matters. One where leaders have ceded the moral high ground in favor of doing whatever they believe best protects the institution’s short-term interests — even if it means allowing individual lives to be destroyed in the process. The institutional response to this moment will have a lot to say about its future horizons.
Hunter’s message to Welsh isn’t mysterious. He’s putting the general on notice that getting the Laughlin outcome wrong will have disastrous consequences. He’s not wrong. Every day that the Air Force’s leaders — Welsh chief among them — fail to snap out of their malaise and draw a close the toxic season of abusive madness that has gripped micu of the senior officer corps, they dim the future of a once-great institution.
Street-level airmen are smart. They see this situation for what it is. That makes it a huge test for Gen. Welsh. Here’s to hoping he gets it right, and without further delay.
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