In a detailed article published here last week, I wrote about the dubious sacking of Lt. Col. Lance Annicelli, whose group commander temporarily sidelined him only to have that move made permanent by his wing commander, Col. Doug Lee, without established cause or reasonable explanation.
An investigation conducted after-the-fact explored a vague allegation of “toxic leadership,” providing sufficient cover for Lee’s decision even as it failed to show Annicelli culpable for misconduct or ineffectiveness.
Observers of the situation hoped Maj. Gen. Jack Shanahan, until today Commander of 25th Air Force, might take notice of the myriad problems plaguing the process that determined Annicelli’s fate and grant him either redress or a new investigation under a pending Article 138 appeal. After all, appeals are supposedly focused not so much on the specific facts of a given case, but on whether there was an appropriate process followed, and as I wrote last week, the process used to fire Annicelli suffered from fundamental flaws that should have prevented it from being the basis of any official action.
But unbeknownst to Annicelli, his supporters, and others optimistic about the appeal, Shanahan had already decided Annicelli’s appeal before last week’s story went to press, though it took until today (which was Shanahan’s last at 25th Air Force) for the official response to reach Annicelli.
In a single-page, meticulously crafted letter dated July 27th, Shanahan reports that he has “carefully reviewed” Annicelli’s request. He then summarily dismisses both his appeal and his request for a new investigation. This, barring a reversal by the Secretary of the Air Force, solidifies official sponsorship of Annicelli’s relief from command and the corrupt process used to justify that relief.
There are two conspicuous features of Shanahan’s letter that warrant exposition.
First, he justifies Annicelli’s firing on the grounds that his boss “lost confidence” in his “ability to safely command the unit.” This is a shift from the actual rationale given at the time. When Col. Jody Ocker temporarily removed Annicelli from his post, she did so on the basis of a specific (but as yet unpublished) allegation of “toxic leadership.” The Command Directed Investigation (CDI) into Annicelli explored a generalized allegation of “toxic leadership,” and substantiated this generalized allegation, though without appropriate or sufficient evidence.
“Toxic leadership” was the reason provided when Annicelli lost his job, and not “loss of confidence.” The distinction may seem casual, but it’s important and central to this case’s fair disposition.
If the reason for the firing was “toxic leadership,” and that allegation was never properly substantiated, then Ocker’s loss of confidence could not be considered reasonable, and the firing would not be valid. Shanahan’s shift to “loss of confidence” permits him to avoid specifically addressing whether the CDI reached a valid conclusion, which allows him to take Ocker’s “loss of confidence” at face value without exploring whether she reasonably lost confidence or did so arbitrarily. This is an elaborate and lawyerly dodge.
Shanahan’s shifting of the basis for Annicelli’s firing subtly and deceptively elides the most critical issue in the entire matter, and represents a fundamental denial of fair process for Annicelli. It continues a chain of process flaws that reflect corrosion and undermining of the key protections emplaced to regulate power relationships between key members of the Air Force’s leadership cohort at Beale and elsewhere.
But this first problem with Shanahan’s letter, in continually gesturing toward Ocker as the officer responsible for Annicelli’s firing, highlights a second major flaw. In his final flourish, Shanahan finds that Annicelli was not wronged by Lee because “you were relieved from command by Colonel Ocker.”
The problem for Shanahan is that the evidence clearly indicates just the opposite: that Lee, and not Ocker, fired Lance Annicelli.
On February 12th, Ocker informed Annicelli she was temporarily removing him from his job. She told him a CDI would determine whether he would be restored to command or permanently sidelined. She then went on vacation for two weeks.
The next morning, Lee, and not Ocker, informed Annicelli he was permanently relieved of command. Annicelli supplied this fact to Shanahan, but it is ignored in Shanahan’s official response.
Later that morning, Lee, and not Ocker, met with members of the 9th Physiological Support Squadron. According to witnesses in attendance, Lee informed them that he, and not Ocker, had relieved Annicelli. The reason he provided was “toxic leadership.” These facts were provided to Shanahan, but they are not addressed in his dismissal of the appeal.
That same afternoon, Lee, and not Ocker, met with all squadron commanders in the 9th Reconnaissance Wing. In that meeting, he informed them that he, and not Ocker, had relieved Annicelli from command. Once again, he cited concerns about toxic leadership. These facts were provided to Shanahan, who seemingly brushed them aside.
Shanahan (undoubtedly with the considerable help of his lawyer) found legally nimble ways to neglect all of the evidence indicating Lee, and not Ocker, had done the firing, choosing instead to close ranks, protect the image of the chain of command, and double down on a corrupt and unfair process.
This is unacceptable. Ignoring inconvenient evidence is conduct below the ethical bar for any public official.
Why would this be done? Because at this moment, many in Congress are actively considering legislation that would place new limits on the legal and administrative authority of the chain of command, and any openly acknowledged mistake by a senior officer like Lee could feed that narrative. The chain of command, having been bureaucratized, will thus always act to preserve itself above all else. This applies even when the interests of justice are at stake.
But that’s a descriptive theory rather than an excuse. Indeed, we’re at a troubling elbow in Air Force history when a process as fundamentally compromised as the one that ended this commander’s career can sail through 2-star review and not only gain sponsorship, but have its corrupt method expanded upon and made even more grotesque. The lithe deceitfulness at work in the denial of Annicelli’s appeal is beneath the US Air Force. Or more precisely, it should be. With every case like this one, more astute observers tend to think legislators like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) are onto something with their proposed reforms.
But there are internal reasons for the Air Force to be concerned as well, aside from the reasons of individual justice that should, in and of themselves, be a robust firewall sealing off administrative processes from corruption. No matter how powerful the intangible and intrinsic incentives for command, they will be broadly and swiftly nullified if officers begin believing that an entire body of professional work can be obliterated, a reputation permanently tarnished, and future prospects dimmed at the whim of a disapproving boss.
This denial, and the manner in which it was delivered, continues a downward spiral of command irresponsibility that is dissuading many superb officers from making squadron command a career goal. The impact of this pattern of organizational behavior will be powerful, destructive, and lasting. To make matters worse, the de-masking of general officers, once popularly considered by airmen to be genuinely invested leaders, promises to further upend service morale. If generals cannot be counted upon for objective fairness free from the tentacles of political expediency, it won’t be long before the alienation and moral hollowing of the 1970s revisit a service already suffering under the weight of a horribly imbalanced mismatch between resources and mission demands.
All of this unless the Secretary of the Air Force and her staff choose to look genuinely anew at cases like this one and follow fair process wherever it leads. On that score, the uniformed chain of command is rapidly hemorrhaging the last of its credibility.