Gazette Exposes Student Spying Program at Air Force Academy

Former Air Force Cadet Eric Thomas walks through the cadet dorms Tuesday, May 28, 2013, the day before the Class of 2013 graduates at the Air Force Academy. Thomas, who was a confidential informant and critical to several convictions, was kicked out of the academy in March, less than months short of graduating.  (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Former Air Force Cadet Eric Thomas walks through the cadet dorms Tuesday, May 28, 2013, the day before the Class of 2013 graduates at the Air Force Academy. Thomas, who was a confidential informant and critical to several convictions, was kicked out of the academy in March, less than months short of graduating. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

The Gazette of Colorado Springs published a remarkable investigative report Sunday that detailed how a secretive law enforcement branch of the U.S. Air Force – the Office of Special Investigations, or OSI – recruited  cadets at the Air Force Academy to inform on misconduct among fellow cadets.

The story, by Gazette reporter Dave Philipps, reads like an espionage thriller, with hidden cameras and microphones, lies and misinformation to superiors, and all sorts of other surreptitious activity. One of the cadet informants, in fact, described his role as “like a spy movie.”

But this was no Hollywood fiction.

The Gazette confirmed the clandestine program’s existence through phone and text records, through interviews with former OSI agents and multiple OSI informants, court filings and documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. And the cadet who thought he was in a spy movie was cashiered from the academy, with promises from the OSI that he would be protected evaporating.

The newspaper found that the program appeared to rely disproportionately on minority cadets, who were then coerced into breaking academy rules, the student honor code and the trust of their fellow cadets to do the OSI’s bidding. The Air Force’s top commander and key members of the academy’s civilian oversight board claimed they had no knowledge of the program.

Prior to publication, academy commanders declined multiple requests for interviews, according to The Gazette. But after publication, the academy issued a statement defending its use of student informants: “The program uses people who confidentially provide vital information about criminal activities that would not otherwise be available. AFOSI uses that information to initiate or resolve criminal investigations. This is an Air Force-wide program and is not something unique at the Air Force’s Academy.”

The informants reported on activities ranging from off-campus parties, to drug use and purchases,  to alleged sexual assaults.

Members of Congress, including Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, have tried to intervene on behalf of cadet informants after they were disavowed by OSI and expelled from the academy.

The use of informants is widespread in law enforcement, of course, but their involvement, student on student, in the rigorous world of an elite military academy – in which almost every student is among the top achievers from their high schools and hometowns  – raised fundamental questions among the experts interviewed by The Gazette.

One of those persons, Laurie Johnson, a Kansas State University professor who specializes in ethics and honor codes, told The Gazette that trust is at the heart of any honor code, and, “By introducing spying I would think the cadets would believe there’s no trust.” Worse, she said, if the Air Force encourages cadets to break the honor code as informants, it shows leaders have little use for the rules cadets are expected to follow.

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