Osan Commanders Are Spying on Dormitory Airmen

Osan Video Monitoring

Last year, commanders at Osan Air Base in Korea decided to install high-definition, 24/7 surveillance cameras in the common areas of dormitories housing some 3,000 airmen. The rationale stated at the time was, generically, the safety of those airmen. Not litigated at the time was whether the cost of the new capability would be offset by the marginal gain in safety, but such debates are rarely entertained in such an authoritarian system. Ideas are presumed valid, good, and lawful the instant they gain command sponsorship.

Fast forward a year and the system has predictably loosed from its “safety” moorings and morphed into a tool for the control and criminalization of the base’s junior airmen. Over the past few weeks, we’ve received several reports that commanders are not using video footage merely to aid in criminal investigations after a report of wrongdoing, but are proactively reviewing all footage to scan for unreported wrongdoing. 

For many, the new policy feels like pre-emptive criminalization — demonstrating that the chain of command is not genuinely concerned about safety or well-being so much as it cares about nailing airmen for innocuous or minor transgressions that would normally fall well below the threshold of official notice.

For others, it’s simply a reminder that the chain of command doesn’t trust them. Few things are more corrosive to military discipline and esprit than having an entire echelon of the force structure reach this conclusion.

I reached out to the leadership at Osan looking for verification of this proactive surveillance policy. In an email response, spokesman Capt. Rob Howard provided the following (my comments and analysis interspersed):

“Thanks for the inquiry and providing us an opportunity to highlight this
important program that helps keep our Osan Airmen safe.”

So … we’re still talking about safety. But if safety were indeed the orientation of the program, it’s not clear why it would need to be used proactively to search out trivial conduct that didn’t create enough of a safety compromise to generate a report.

“The safety and security of our Airmen is one of our top priorities, and we
take our responsibility to ensure a respectful, healthy living climate here at
Osan very seriously.”

Ok … so now we’ve expanded from “safety” by adding “security” along with “respectful” and “healthy living.” Right here, in this early textual shift, we get our first clue what this program is really about: controlling, shaping, and limiting the living conditions of dorm-assigned airmen. We also get a sense for the totality of the surveillance. When you add together these four rationales, basically any conduct becomes relevant … from eating too many hamburgers to cursing at a neighbor to leaving a door unlocked or failing to clean up a spill in a timely manner.

Col Hansen has directed unit first sergeants to proactively review, as an installation inspection, CCTV footage in Osan’s dormitories on a recurring basis. This review includes scanning CCTV footage located in one or more dormitories preselected on a random and recurring basis, and verifying individuals are following established norms.

Translation: Col Hansen is using his authority as wing commander to operate a taxpayer-funded panopticon with the objective of social control. The essential truth of this is in the premise of the answer: it’s not enough for airmen to follow the rules … they must follow established norms. Unstated is that a “norm” is evidence of a prevailing social view, not a scripture commanding certain lifestyle choices. This is how, in the Air Force, the lifestyle preferences of commanders become punitive law.

Information identified as potentially suspicious, destructive, or criminal is sent to the member’s first sergeant and/or commander for review.  Information identified as criminal is also provided to Security Forces and AFOSI for investigation, as appropriate.  As a matter of clarification, the CCTV cameras are located in dormitory common areas, such as hallways and dayrooms–they are not located in each Airman’s actual room.”

Note the attempted rhetorical sleight of hand here. By including “suspicious” with “destructive” and “criminal,” Howard (who is presumably speaking on behalf of Hansen) attempts to place the three on a level plane of justification. But not only is “suspicious” an inescapably subjective and ambiguous category, it is far less serious than the other two. This vagary creates a policy that allows any airman doing anything to be held at risk.

What Howard also elides here is that under the military’s unique “justice system,” any conduct that breaks any rule written down anywhere is classifiable as “criminal” because it disobeys an order. This means walking through the door a minute after curfew, smoking a cigarette in an unauthorized place, or speaking too loudly during quiet hours are all classifiable as “criminal” and thus reportable to the chain of command. Same with talking trash about the boss in the hallway, slapping your friend on the ass, or wearing the uniform improperly.

The closing sentence is interesting. It’s as if the chain of command wants credit for not invading the bedrooms of airmen, even as it invades the balance of their living spaces. 

Previously, these CCTV reviews only occurred after another member visibly
witnessed an Airman committing an infraction in the dormitory compound.
Although Airmen were held accountable, the intent behind these cameras is to provide all Airmen a healthy living environment free from concerns of sexual assault, destructive behavior, or other threats of violence.

This explains that the policy has changed, but it doesn’t explain why. It basically says “the old program was working, so we expanded it” … attempting to justify the expansion by sprinkling in frightful language about violent crimes. Trying to fill in the explanatory gaps with reasoned speculation leads to logical dead-ends. If the idea was to capture video evidence of unreported sexual assaults, it rests on the threat of sexual assault occurring in common areas known by airmen to be monitored by CCTV. If the idea was to capture unreported physical threats, it ignores that the reason “threats” are often not reported is that the recipient didn’t consider them credible in context and under the circumstances.

Frightening ideas used as justification for unwarranted authority are nothing new. Every tyrant in history has used the same tactic. Increasingly, the question is whether the Air Force is willing to recognize that a man-built system can be just as tyrannical as a man … and whether it cares.

We have found that the use of the CCTVs in a proactive manner, as well as other Osan initiatives like our SNCO/officer courtesy patrols and recent limitation on alcohol sales on base after 0100, have provided our Airmen a better, more positive, and safer living environment.  Additionally, these initiatives ensure our Airmen understand that unacceptable behavior will not be tolerated and that they will be held accountable for their actions.

So, it’s somehow a revelation that when strict limitations on personal liberty are emplaced and tightened to the point of lifestyle strangulation, people respond by falling into linear conformity, and that the monitoring and surveillance results in more discipline for those errant few who dare to resist.

It’s sickening to read messages like this, issued under the name of a senior Air Force officer, that show not a trace of traditional American thinking. Not a trace of duty to principle … just a pure, consequentialist application of power to generate a desired result. No limits obeyed or acknowledged, no risk permitted, and zero expectation that the subjects of the control regime will ever advance beyond an infantile stage and exercise authority of their own.

A responsible leader obeys a duty to leave room for people to make mistakes and grow from them without permanent scarring. A responsible American obeys a similar limit requiring him to respect the dignity, agency, and privacy of countrymen … even if he believes his authority allows him to emplace limits. Nary a hint of either in this policy or the confirmation of its existence.

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This isn’t about safety. If that were the case, installing cameras and using footage to respond to reported incidents would be enough. This is about control. By proactively reviewing tapes and criminalizing the otherwise innocuous, the chain of command seeks to manufacture a sterile dorm life free from any nonlinearity. The mentality reflected in this policy is disgusting. It views airmen as children in need of nanny cams and time-outs. Never mind that they are adults who volunteered to serve their country while many of their colleagues huddled in “safe spaces.”

But just as a “safe space” invokes supposed authority from social science to create a zone free from the risk of confrontation, Air Force officers invoke their legal authority to create their own “safe spaces” … where they can remain free from the professional risk of having a criminal act occur on their watch. Commanders are using power for control in the name of self-preservation, warping the justice system, unit and service culture, and the traditional character of military service in the process.

One person familiar with the situation at Osan said to me:

Between curfew, town patrol, dorm monitoring, random breathalyzers at the gate, requiring airmen to check in and out (on the opposite end of base from the gate) every time they leave the base, and the complete overreaction to every minor offense, its no wonder Osan is #1 per capita for Article 15s. Its just so damn depressing.”

This exposes a major flaw in the “thought process” underlying Air Force justice and disciplinary processes. Resources are applied unevenly, creating uneven results which are then treated as evidence proving the original proposition. See guys, we started spying on airmen, and now look at all these things we’ve discovered, which means our suspicions were justified.

But the fact is that if these cameras were installed in the living spaces of everyone, and the rules applied consistently, the rate of criminality would be consistent across the ranks — both enlisted and officer. This is because the correlation between age/rank and misconduct is wildly overstated, which is unsurprising given that high-ranking elders possessed of planet-melting vanity and image consciousness control the narrative.

But it’s also true for a more basic reason: everyone is committing misconduct every day — usually without even recognizing it. The element of intent has largely been stripped out of criminality, especially in an Air Force system. Airmen can be disciplined for breaking a trivial rule they didn’t even know existed, or for running afoul of a vague standard someone alleges they misinterpreted.

This isn’t a phenomenon unique to the Air Force. In “Three Felonies a Day,” Harvey Silverglate explains how an explosion in broad, vague, yet politically popular criminal statutes has made every individual an unwitting serial criminal on a daily basis. Believe it or not, like it or not, we are all breaking laws in our daily lives. Since we’re all criminally culpable, who formally becomes a “criminal” depends not on quality of character or commitment to ethical and moral uprightness, but simply on who the empowered decide to target.

In the Osan context, empowered commanders, enabled by obedient toady SNCOs, are targeting junior airmen. This explains disproportionate rates of discipline, and if Osan’s leaders disagree, they should subject themselves to the same 24/7 surveillance. In fact, as military leaders, they should have done so before asking it of their people.

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When your orientation is military victory, you build teams and develop character. When your orientation is risk aversion, you seek control. At Osan, risk-averse commanders are treating their own people like prisoners or suspected terrorists whose misconduct is a foregone conclusion and must be prevented. It’s only fair that airmen (and would-be airmen) be put on notice … that the Air Force is not oriented on winning right now, and is therefore not properly channeling the power bequeathed to it for the supposed purpose of winning. The result is a heavy ballast of authority looking for a way to exert itself, and ultimately coming to rest on the chests of the disempowered.

The way they are consequently pinned down is corrosive to morale, but don’t tell that to the Chief of Staff … he thinks morale is just fine … because obviously adult Americans love having their civil liberties trampled for the privilege of serving. Of course, he also doesn’t believe privacy exists in the Air Force, or that it’s important. He’s lawless yet mainly correct as to the former, but dead wrong as to the latter.

Oh, and the best part? This is all taxpayer-funded … part of the budget of an Air Force whining incessantly to Congress that it is short on money and manpower. Yet it has the money to buy cameras and the SNCO manpower to electively review footage absent any stated, reasonable belief that either is worth the expenditure. Perversely, some of those taxes are paid by the same airmen targeted by such policies at Osan and elsewhere.

When airmen are off duty, leave them alone. Establish reasonable standards of conduct and enforce them. When you become aware of something, deal with it. But don’t go looking for trouble. And when you go looking for trouble and find it, don’t strain anything patting yourself on the back. You’re manufacturing the destruction of a once great service tradition … but hey, at least you’ll get to lord over the flaming wreckage after those with more sense than ambition pull chocks.

Is this even legal? We’ll discuss that in a future installment. In the meantime, Congress should preempt any dispute by making it explicitly illegal in the next defense bill for commanders to spy on off-duty airmen using the pretext of safety. 

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