Late last fall, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh found himself unable to ignore a growing calamity involving one of his wing commanders, Col. Brian Hastings. Two Congressmen — Republican Duncan Hunter of California and Republican Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — were pushing Welsh for answers as to why Hastings had punished three instructor pilots for drug use based solely on text messages from their private cellphones — charges that have since been found totally baseless.
In early October, Welsh relented. He met personally with the two legislators and their staffs, and as a result of the meeting, agreed to conduct a fresh inquiry. The investigation that followed cleared the pilots of drug-related wrongdoing, though one of the three remains sidelined by command intransigence with Welsh refusing to respond to inquires from Hunter and Kinzinger.
At the time of the October meeting, I asked the Air Force for details about it and got the following response from spokesman Chris Karns:
“A meeting did take place between Congressional representatives and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. I’m not at liberty to discuss the particulars however, as always, we remain committed to addressing Congressional concerns. This matter has the attention of Air Force senior leadership and is being looked into further.”
According to several sources who spoke to JQP on the condition of anonymity, there is something deliberate behind the service’s cryptic, say-nothing response. It turns out some of the details of the meeting are potentially explosive and embarrassing, implicating the Chief of Staff himself.
As we reported here, Welsh was accompanied at the October meeting by Col. Hastings, along with a raft of additional legal and policy advisors. Previously unreported is that as the meeting kicked off, representatives of the legislators’ staffs brushed aside the pre-formulated, rehearsed briefing into which Welsh’s coterie attempted to launch and instead confronted Welsh with a question the general did not see coming: they asked Welsh why Hastings had been making recent personal contact with a Laughlin officer at the center of the scandal, and unusual and potentially problematic fact.
It turns out that in the days prior to the Washington meeting to which he’d been summoned by the service’s top leader, Hastings — who had surrendered command of Laughlin several months before and moved on to another position — made an unorthodox, after hours phone call to a female Lieutenant still assigned to the base. The content and purpose of the call are not clear.
The Lieutenant was none other than a material party in one of the many criminal investigations over which Hastings had presided as Laughlin’s wing commander. She’d been found culpable in an inappropriate relationship with a Laughlin instructor pilot during her time as a student, and had been nonjudicially punished by Hastings but permitted to recover and graduate. She was assigned back to Laughlin as an instructor after graduation. The instructor implicated in the matter will soon be tried in a court-martial.
The Lieutenant’s role in the scandal is potentially important. It was in the course of investigating sexual improprieties between instructors and students that Hastings uncovered the wayward text messages he mistakenly believed indicated drug activity among several of his instructors. A fresh investigation into how Hastings wielded his legal authority could be expected to include interviews with individuals like her. This raises the question whether Hastings’ phone call, on the eve of the meeting with Welsh and legislators, was part of an effort to coach witnesses and prepare them for a coming storm.
This is only one possible explanation, and maybe the least troublesome. There are very few legitimate reasons for a graduated wing commander to be placing a personal call to a junior officer stationed at another base, on her personal cellphone, after hours. There are even fewer legitimate reasons when the two have a history that includes one nonjudicially punishing the other for engaging in an unprofessional relationship. And there are even fewer when that call comes on the eve of a Congressionally demanded meeting to discuss the appropriateness of disciplinary actions taken by that wing commander. The fact of the call’s occurrence, without respect to its content, should have set off alarm bells.
But, according to insiders, Welsh had no chance to be alarmed before the meeting … because Hastings never told him about the call. CSAF apparently had no idea about it until representatives of the two legislators confronted him with the information and asked for an explanation. Reeling and visibly incensed, Welsh agreed to look into it. He’d obviously been sandbagged.
After the meeting concluded, a furious Welsh reportedly dressed down the hapless Hastings, whose failure to disclose the odd and troublesome phone call had put the general at a narrative and informational disadvantage in what he likely hoped would be a delicate negotiation with the two Congressmen.
What Welsh didn’t do — at least according to the public record — was discipline Hastings, who remains the Commandant of Air Command and Staff College. There’s no indication that he even so much as directed a fresh investigation into the nature of Hastings’ relationship with the Lieutenant or others, or that knowledge of the phone call triggered any larger questions for Welsh about how the former wing commander had exercised his power.
This is a really big deal. The entire Laughlin witch hunt is about Hastings’ punishment of other officers for failing to report suspected unprofessional relationships. In some cases, officers lost their careers and absorbed harsh discipline for failing to report rumors of relationships — rumors they didn’t find credible. Now we learn that Hastings was engaged in personal communications with a junior female officer in an odd enough way so as to raise reasonable suspicion of an unprofessional relationship of some sort, and the Chief of Staff himself, armed with direct knowledge, did nothing to address the conduct. He permitted Hastings a different standard than Hastings afforded many others, and did so in the context of supposedly evaluating Hastings’ exercise of power.
By ignoring — and in the process, legitimizing — this conduct on the part of one of his wing commanders, Gen. Welsh has made himself part of the scandal. It’s time for the Defense Department Inspector General or perhaps a Congressional oversight committee to conduct a formal investigation into the Chief of Staff and his decisions, directions, and actions with respect to the Laughlin cases of the past couple of years. The appearance in this case is that of a gross double standard orchestrated to protect the image of the institution, even if it means ignoring the possibility of systemic injustice carried out by a wing commander with apparently questionable judgment. Such utilitarian political shenanigans at the expense of ethical conduct are a recipe for institutional failure.
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