More than three months after a 2-star told subordinates they were traitors if they registered misaligned personal opinions with Congress, the Air Force has finally taken a noticeable step to reaffirm the speech and political rights of its airmen.
In a memo dated April 24th — two weeks after Maj. Gen. James Post was reprimanded and eight days after I criticized Gen. Mark Welsh on these pages for failing to demonstrate leadership on this issue — the service’s top officials certify, at long last, that should airmen “choose to communicate with an inspector general or Congress, they must be allowed to do so without fear of reprisal.”
While it also enumerates the key clause in Title 10, Sec. 1034 of the US Code, which states that “[n]o person may restrict a member of the armed forces in communicating with a member of Congress or an inspector general,” the letter leaves a lot to be desired. One way to understand its 161 words is to view them as an overtly milquetoast gesture made out of obligation. After all, the Air Force was swatted by DoD and excoriated by Congress over this issue, and needs to appear to care about the speech and political rights of its people.
But even as an attempt at “CYA,” the effort comes up short.
A remarkable feature of this letter is not what it says, but what it doesn’t. James and Welsh state that “[e]very commander should continue to educate” about this important protection … without doing anything themselves to educate the memo’s audience. Since there is obviously room among Air Force generals for interpretive variance and misunderstanding as to this part of federal law, the best way to ensure compliance and to safeguard the rights of airmen — which is the letter’s espoused purpose — would be for SECAF and CSAF to tell everyone what they believe the law means and to express their own commitment to its faithful adherence.
They did none of that. No elaboration, no examples, no guidance. Just some pro forma talking point jargon and citation of a few rules so commanders can go read for themselves. That’s not leadership. Together with the absence of public comment or otherwise manifested ownership of the issue, such passivity has created a void of leadership, which champions of loyalty culture have rushed to fill. This has deepened the pathology the memo purports to remedy, and stoked widespread resentment among airmen.
The main problem with this letter, however, isn’t its tardiness or its sparing half-page length or even the way it exemplifies modernist bureaucratic malaise. It’s the narrow reading of servicemember rights implicitly baked into what appears to be little more than a shell to ferry the light weight of institutional shirking. A trained eye will note that this memo actually attempts to do some work, and in doing so seeks to subtly refute the very purpose it was allegedly crafted to vindicate.
Three times in the letter — to include in the title and in the leading sentence of the concluding paragraph — the phrase “military whistleblower” is used. This is an obvious attempt to cabin the protections discussed as those accorded to someone reporting misconduct, fraud/waste/abuse, or the like. The message communicated and received among audiences in the field is likely to be “your whistleblower communications are protected.”
But Welsh and James know (or should know if legally well-advised and listening to that advice) that the protections they’re discussing here are more expansive. While the contents of 10 USC 1034 were originally carried to legislative fruition as the “Military Whistleblower Protection Act,” the protections they provide extend far beyond the whistleblower rubric. As the Post debacle demonstrates, an airman need not be making a whistleblower complaint to be afforded the protection of the statute. S/he need only be talking to Congress (or an IG) and be making a lawful communication. President Obama signed into law a significant expansion of these protections in 2013, charting a trajectory that clearly envisions stronger and more expansive protections of the civil liberties of servicemembers. When James and Welsh mention the “intent” of the law, this is the intent they should respecting, not a narrow interpretation that could lead airmen to believe their non-whistleblower communications with Congress could get them into legitimate trouble with their commanders.
This sleight-of-hand (and yes, I give James and Welsh far too much credit to consider this benign negligence) reinforces what I’ve argued for some time now: that the Air Force does not want its members to exercise speech or political rights. That it has been captured by a cultural movement bent on extinguishing intellectual freedom, and that it is coming unmoored from the American values it exists to defend, and in some cases the laws giving force to those values.The trend is something others have begun to notice.
Senior officials aren’t doing much to falsify my claim, which is a way of passively adopting it. Through their actions and inactions, Welsh and James are blowing a hyper-conformist dog whistle, and their subordinates are barking at the cue.
Just a few days ago, Chief Master Sergeant Frank Lakotich, Operations Superintendent of the 86th Civil Engineer Squadron, included the following words in an online commentary directed at his own airmen but viewable by the entire enlisted force:
“So, before you put your ‘Facebook lawyer’ hat on and post something, ask yourself if this is something you’re ready to answer to with your leadership. If the answer to that question is no or you hesitated in your decision, then it’s probably a safe bet it’s not professional.”
This senior enlisted leader obviously believes it’s within his power to police and question the speech of subordinates posting online using his own subjective standard — even if they’re rendering personal opinion rather than representing the service. Lakotich doesn’t even bother with subtlety — he openly encourages airmen to refrain from speaking their minds if they believe their supervisors might disapprove. He paints them a nice preview of the reprisal that is certain to follow if they dare defy his admonition.
Only in a culturally ill institution do senior members feel this free to crack down on the basic liberties of their equally American, equally free subordinates, and to expand their drive for conformity not only into the off-duty sphere of life, but into the very thoughts and feelings of their subordinates.
Since SECAF and CSAF did not educate the field appropriately with their memo, I’ll take a crack at adding something useful.
DoD Directive 1325.6 states in relevant part:
“a Service member’s right of expression should be preserved to the maximum extent possible in accordance with the constitutional and statutory provisions of titles 10 and 18, United States Code … and consistent with good order and discipline and the national security.” [my emphasis]
Maximum extent possible is a wholly different point of departure for a discussion of civil liberty than minimum extent necessary to comply with the law. It’s a higher standard, and one that should have headlined any effort by senior officials to remind airmen, and more importantly their leaders, about their right to continue as full-fledged citizens of the country they’re serving to defend.
It would be comfortable, given the issues plaguing it, to roundly dismiss this memo as just the latest in chain of top-level failures to properly establish a climate of open and constructive communication in America’s Air Force.
But, in a distressing signal of just how low expectations of our senior officials have descended at this particular moment, all I can offer on behalf of the rank-and-file airmen I’m attempting to channel is “thanks … I think.”
It’s a tepid response. But so is this memo.