For the past month, the Air Force Inspector General (IG) has been conducting an investigation directed by the Chief of Staff, General Mark Welsh. At issue is whether three officers assigned to the base were improperly reprimanded and grounded after commanders judged their private text messages out of context, mistakenly labeling them drug users based on unserious pop culture references.
Instigated by national media coverage of the case, Welsh sent a message to the field putting airmen on notice of a new Air Force doctrine essentially eliminating any expectation of privacy in their communications. He let them know they could be held accountable for anything deemed inappropriate or unprofessional, whether communicated on or off duty, and regardless of medium. Airmen took it as a crackdown.
From Welsh’s email:
We’ve captured the Air Force’s culture and standards in AFI 1-1. We all know 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, on and off-duty, Airmen have signed up to live up to Air Force Standards and Core Values. Through all the different ways in which Airmen communicate and interact, respect and dignity are essential. It doesn’t matter whether it’s in person, by text, twitter, or the latest social media app, we are all personally accountable for what we say and post.
This “zero privacy doctrine” is legally assailable and offensive to civil liberties. Beyond that, it is a threat to the basic viability and organizational health of the Air Force. But Welsh has thus far refused to walk back his email, or even clarify what he intended it to mean. Now it’s starting to trigger foreseeable problems.
One of the myriad issues with letting such a doctrine stand is that it must be enforced equitably across the force. Otherwise, it comprises nothing more than an arbitrary standard manipulable by commanders to target, marginalize, and eliminate the disfavored under the color of federal legal authority. Welsh can’t have it both ways. Either he must fix the problems with the standard he has created or he must enforce it even-handedly and accept the consequences.
Which brings us to a currently unfolding situation involving prominent leaders of the Laughlin Air Force Base community. In a publicly-shared facebook post, Mr. Joel Langton, who is the Chief of Laughlin’s Public Affairs Office, seems to brag about dropping acid, remarking “[b]ut it was some really good acid, and cheap.”
Langton was responding to a comment telling him to “lay off the acid” that was made by Lt. Col. Matt van Dalen, an active duty Air Force lawyer formerly stationed at Laughlin. Though the content of the original post cannot be seen in the version given to JQP, it’s been “liked” by Lt. Col. Cory Christoffer, who serves as the operations officer of Laughlin’s 47th Student Squadron. In a note of irony, sources tell JQP that Christoffer has recently warned subordinates to be cautious about liking or commenting stories on social media, apparently because perceptions about their participation could be grounds for professional jeopardy.
Does this post mean Langton was using drugs? Does his reference to the cheapness of “acid” imply familiarity with the prices of drugs such that he could be suspected of LSD trafficking? Were the other two officers who participated in the post under an obligation to report their colleague as a suspected acid freak? Are these comments consistent with Air Force Standards and Core Values?
Before three Laughlin officers were hunted and destroyed for closely analogous comments taken similarly out of context, the answers might have seemed obvious. This appears to be a few friends jawboning jokingly on facebook and not serious talk of substance abuse. In the traditional culture of the Air Force, this would never be noticed, let alone questioned … and if it were questioned, a reasonable explanation would be accepted and the matter promptly closed.
But that’s not the state of things in today’s Air Force. Under the precedent established by Col. Brian Hastings in “Miley Gate” and later adopted and broadened by Gen. Welsh, the answers aren’t obvious anymore, at least not from an official Air Force perspective.
By themselves, these remarks are probably enough to surpass the extremely modest probable cause threshold required to pursue suspicion of some sort of unlawful activity. They could almost certainly be construed as outside the bounds of the professional standard established by Welsh’s recent email. In a way, this exchange is worse than the one implicating the “Molly Three” since their text messages were completely private and these remarks were shared publicly on a social media site with no expectation of privacy.
Thus, a situation that should be utterly unremarkable is now potentially a significant issue for the chain of command.
This is the can of worms Gen. Welsh has opened. His reasons for refusing to close it are unclear, but this is just the beginning. The costs of his wayward policy will pile up quickly if every fragment of communication via any method is subject to extra-contextual review by commanders, investigators, and prosecutors.
The LSD-themed banter came to JQP after catching the attention of the office of Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-CA), whose interest in the Laughlin witch hunt helped catalyze the Air Force’s ongoing IG inquiry into the Laughlin punishments. Joe Kasper, a staff member in Hunter’s office, sent senior officials on the Air Staff a message demanding action and answers:
The screen grab attached reveals some concerns about the head of Laughlin PA, Joel Langton, and Col (active) Matt van Dalen. According to the same standard set forth in the case of the Laughlin pilots, Mr. Langton and possibly others appear to be admitting to (or having knowledge of) acid use. To be fair and apply the same standard evenly and consistently, we believe it’s prudent for the AF to begin an investigation to determine possible drug use/collusion among the individuals identified, and possibly others. Also liking the post is Cory Christoffer, who is a Lt. Col. in the 47th Student Squadron at Laughlin. Oddly, he’s [a former supervisor of one of the Molly Three].
It is not our desire to make this request. However, the AF needs to fairly apply its standards for investigations. Presumably, somebody is picking and choosing what/who gets investigated and what/who doesn’t. Without context here—the attached post reveals some disconcerting information that could be a serious breach of morality/ethics … and the law.
It’s also our belief that a favorable decision in the case of the Laughlin pilots would eliminate any need for an investigation in this case—since I’m willing to presume these posts/associations were made in good fun and not really intended to indicate acid use or knowledge of acid use.
We are interested in your immediate response.
Gen. Welsh has a big problem on his hands, and it’s not limited to Laughlin or this narrow incident. He has allowed bureaucrats and other non-leaders to seize the service’s psyche and its culture. He has empowered his staff to create and propound a series of rules and standards giving commanders excessive authority to criminalize harmless, ordinary, everyday behavior. This is no way to run any organization. If it stands, the Air Force falls.
Welsh needs to undo this mess rapidly, or the entire service will find itself walking on eggshells, seized with paranoia, and watching as any hope of normal, healthy communication disintegrates. In the meantime, he’s now stuck deciding whether to reinforce a manifestly dumb policy to avoid losing face … or tolerate a double standard that would eviscerate the credibility of the service’s fundamental power structures.
The right decision seems obvious. But it wouldn’t even be necessary if Welsh or the Air Force were in the habit of making good decisions.
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