Integrity First? Air Force Continues Dodging and Stonewalling on Travis AFB Assault

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It was April 3rd that a civilian member of the Travis Air Force Base community was assailed by a group of uniformed airmen and chucked from a retirement ceremony to which he’d been invited by the honoree. It was just a few days later that we shared video evidence of the incident, followed shortly thereafter by coverage featuring statements from both the honoree and Mr. Rodriguez.

It’s clear that something went terribly wrong at the ceremony, and there’s plenty of evidence suggesting an unlawful order to physically apprehend Rodriguez was given by Lt. Col. Michael Sovitsky and carried out by NCOs in his charge. That order seems to have been designed to enact a prior restraint on Rodriguez’s speech in order to honor a novel interpretation of an Air Force instruction that applied to neither the situation nor Mr. Rodriguez.

What has the Air Force said about this incident?

After an initial statement that did nothing to enhance anyone’s understanding of what occurred, the service has retreated behind a publicity barricade and is refusing to add anything substantive unless and until it deigns to address the issue publicly. An open-ended investigation by unnamed parties in unspecified allegations is allegedly being conducted, and that’s all we peons are entitled to know. After all, we just pay the bills.

I’m taking the rare step of sharing some of my exchange with public affairs officials in order to illustrate the evasiveness and dishonesty of the service’s publicity culture, which exists not to bridge to the public, but to insulate the chain of command against public scrutiny — even and especially when that scrutiny is valid and would be constructive.

It’s clear to me that in this case, as in so many others, the Air Force is not interested in providing a fulsome response or reassuring observers that it will objectively investigate and hold accountable those involved. It’s simply slow-rolling and “waiting out” the few media outlets interested in this story in the hope that it’ll blow over, leaving those involved to escape responsibility and the Air Force free to continue on a disastrous path without being forced to correct.

On April 11th, I sent the following to Lt. Col. Robert Couse-Baker, the reserve public affairs officer running point for the Air Force on this incident.

I’ve been furnished a copy of a complaint forwarded by Mr.Rodriguez in which he asks that criminal charges be filed against those who he says assaulted him at the Roberson retirement ceremony. I understand he has yet to receive a response to his complaint, which also alleges that law enforcement officers ignored his on-scene complaints and insisted he leave the area.

I’d like to ask whether/when Travis officials will respond to his complaint, and whether the investigation into the matter includes looking into his specific allegations. I’d also like to ask who specifically is running the investigation, when it is expected to be complete, and whether there are any updates available.

Late the following evening, I received this response:

The 60th Security Forces Squadron is conducting a formal investigation into the events at Master Sgt. Charles Roberson’s April 3, 2016 retirement ceremony at the 749th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron.  The investigator has communicated with retired Senior Master Sgt. Oscar Rodriguez. There is not yet an estimated time of completion for this investigation.

I found it interesting how this initial response vaguely referred to “communication” between an “investigator” and Mr. Rodriguez, which is different from the chain of command honoring and acting in response to Rodriguez’s criminal complaint. I also noted the Air Force’s insistence upon referring to Rodriguez by his former rank in an attempt to elide the fact he is a civilian, plain and simple, for the purposes of evaluating this incident.

But since the response didn’t really say much, I decided to follow up with a more pointed inquiry less easily eluded through hand-waving vagaries.

1. Has anyone been arrested? If not, why not? Has anyone been cited? If not why not? Can you say how many people have been questioned?

2. Were any 60 SFS officers involved in the initial response to the incident? If so, is it appropriate for the squadron to investigate that part of the complaint?

3. Is this considered an assault investigation?

4. Is anyone (60 SFS or otherwise) investigating whether Mr. Rodriguez’s civil rights were violated?

Three days later, after subsequent prodding, Couse-Baker provided the following:

The 60th Security Forces Squadron responded to a call for service at the 749th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron on April 3, 2016.  Subsequently, the 60 SFS has initiated a comprehensive investigation into the matter.  We won’t have addition information until the investigation runs its course.

So basically, according to the Air Force, a security forces squadron responded to an incident, potentially mishandled it in a way that mangled the rights of a civilian complainant, and is now investigating whether it acted properly. It is investigating itself. Clearly inappropriate.

But also the only useful inference we can unearth from this say-nothing reply.

This is what unaccountable government looks like. A video that has more than 10 million views and is of tremendous public interest is being ignored by the federal agency whose employees gave rise to it. Forget genuine regard for Rodriguez’s rights, the dignity of the retiree whose ceremony was trashed, or the valid public interest in making sure this is corrected and doesn’t happen again. Instead, we get inaction behind a veil of unwarranted secrecy, all of which will lead to another failure to hold anyone accountable.

Then again, we sorta know everything we need to know already. Had the tables been turned and Mr. Rodriguez forcibly removed a uniformed NCO from the proceedings to pre-empt that person’s speech, Rodriguez would have been tackled, cuffed, and stuffed into the back of a police cruiser within minutes. He’d have been charged with criminal assault and be liable for the tort of battery. 

This exposes a simple but damning truth: it’s not conduct or law that matter, but authority. Rodriguez is automatically wrong because he’s not in charge … and in the Air Force, whoever is in charge must be right … even if they’re breaking the law or confounding the Constitution. So instead of a public apology, a relief of command, or even a statement acknowledging wrongs were committed … we get slow-rolling, obfuscation, and stonewalling. All designed to make sure those in charge are not seen as having done anything wrong.

If the service ever gave honest answers to questions, I’d be tempted to ask how this differs from the sort of fascist garbage our military services are perennially called upon to engage and defeat on the battlefield.

So much for “integrity first.”

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