Embattled One Star Shelved in Air Force Public Affairs Shakeup


Brig. Gen. Kathleen Cook, whose leadership of a noticeably subpar Air Force communications effort over the past two years has been frequently called into question, has reportedly been ousted in an unplanned reshuffle atop the service’s publicity apparatus.

In a May 12th “internal announcement,” Cook was reassigned as the Director of Air Force Services, an administrative Air Staff billet entailing considerably less responsibility than her role as Chief of Public Affairs. While the service is likely to attempt a swerve of any public discredit by billing the move as lateral or maybe a modest step up, sources say she was pushed aside, and that the new job is merely a holding pattern permitting Cook to retire in-grade.

Cook’s replacement, Brig. Gen. Ed Thomas, left the Pentagon for his current position at Maxwell Air Force Base a mere nine months ago. For him to be rushed back to Washington on short notice to take over the PA role supports the notion that the move wasn’t forecast. Interestingly, Thomas’s date of rank to Brig. Gen. is listed as today (May 12th) — the very day word of the rearrangement leaked out. His official Air Force biography has already been updated to reflect his new rank.

Maxwell AFB, Ala. - Official portrait of Brigadier General Edward W. Thomas, Jr., taken April 28, 2016. Image selected April 29, 2016. (US Air Force photo by Melanie Rodgers Cox/Released)
Maxwell AFB, Ala. – Official portrait of Brigadier General Edward W. Thomas, Jr., taken April 28, 2016. Image selected April 29, 2016. (US Air Force photo by Melanie Rodgers Cox/Released)

Thomas’s pedigree is much more conventional than Cook’s, showcasing a variety of joint and Air Force public affairs positions stretching back a quarter century. Whereas Cook had spent a dozen years almost exclusively in the space and missile community before taking the top PA job, Thomas has moved around more, logging time in both the European and Pacific theaters as well as at the Pentagon. An interesting trivia note: twelve years ago, Thomas succeeded Cook as commander of Malmstrom’s 341st Mission Support Squadron. He’ll now succeed her again in a very different role.

The Air Force isn’t saying why Cook was abruptly cashiered. That kind of transparency is rare for the service. But insiders allude to friction between Cook and the Secretary of the Air Force’s office. No one seems certain whether the friction was a matter of personal chemistry, job performance, or something else obscured behind the official veil.

It’s tempting, if maybe fanciful, to hope it had something to do with the performance of the PA enterprise while Cook was at the helm. Messaging has been tone deaf, excessively choreographed, and far too propagandist. It has turned airmen off. They’ve flocked to other sources to stay informed … something dawning on the service as it quietly efforts a survey entitled “Where Airmen Get Information.” 

Whatever the reasons, the Air Force has not represented itself well during Cook’s time — neither among airmen nor in its externally facing activities. Her tenure evinced multiple high-profile faceplants that left the service exposed as underhanded and disingenuous, injuring trust among stakeholders across the board.

Cook was part of the decision to squash an A-10 documentary deemed inconsistent with the service’s budget wants. She also shepherded the rollout of an embarrassingly gaudy F-35 doublespeak effort that, like too many service communications efforts, lacked basic candor. The tone set by that effort continues to plague the Air Force’s relationship with Congress.

It was only a month ago that a survey outlined in Foreign Policy ranked the Air Force dead last in trust, accuracy, completeness, and timeliness of information shared with the media. Cook’s response to that article was milquetoast at best … basically (paraphrasing) “we’ll look into it and update our websites.”

The outcome was perfectly predictable as a function of the gross expenditure of focus on the service’s bands, on curating vacuous social media selfies, and on chronicling endless canine-equine extravaganzas … when not busily cooking up budget propaganda. The absence of straight talk was a recipe for the exact result produced.

But perhaps most eyebrow-raising was an “errant” tweet from Cook’s official account criticizing the Obama Administration. The general denied sending the tweet, and a subsequent non-investigation by her own staff shockingly (/s) found no explanation but promised to do better. The incident was a minor embarrassment, but the non-answer was a source of resentment among airmen serially stalked and hounded by the chain of command about their social media activity. Refusing to own that mistake cost Cook dearly, with many airmen up and down the rank structure untrusting of her and her team from that point forward.

Thomas inherits a tough task, with 5,500 publicists working to ameliorate a trust deficit as they labor under a senior leadership cadre addicted to word games and unaware of the nature of information in the current century. Whether he will be more faithfully wedded than his predecessor to the ethos of “maximum disclosure with minimum delay” remains to be seen … but the very fact that the Air Force couldn’t even manage a candid, timely statement about the firing of its own chief publicist is indicative of the need for change.

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