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If you ask most people what they believe to be the role of the Inspector General (IG), they’d likely say the IG’s job is to be a watchdog of sorts. To provide an avenue for people to report on issues impacting an organization — issues that because of their nature or the circumstances can’t be addressed effectively via normal channels.

When it comes to the Air Force, this is very much the conventional wisdom. It is regularly reinforced by the statements of senior officials. In responding to a recent inquiry regarding potential abuses of power by USAF commanders, spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Karns remarked that:

“[I]f a person does not feel a situation or circumstance such as a perceived wrong or violation of law or policy can be resolved or adequately addressed within the chain of command, then filing an IG complaint is certainly an option available to that person.”

Karns speaks for the service, so his words constitute the service position, which is essentially to encourage airmen to seek IG help when the chain of command isn’t the right avenue for a complaint or doesn’t resolve their issues. This seems to both assume and imply that the IG is an appropriately impartial agency.

But just how independent is the IG? The answer, which comes as a surprise to most people, is that the IG isn’t independent at all. While one of the IG’s core roles is to investigate complaints concerning abuse of authority by the chain of command, the IG answers to that same command authority.

The Air Force flatly states as much in its official IG guidance. Excerpting from paragraph 1.2 of Air Force Instruction 90-301:

“The IG system used throughout the total force is based on the concept that IGs serve as an extension of their commander by acting as his/her eyes and ears to be alert to issues affecting the organization.”

While nebulous, this guidance is clearly in conflict with the idea of the IG as a “watchdog.” 

These somewhat contradictory ideas raise the question whether true impartiality can be expected from an agency that not only lacks meaningful independence, but actually has the stated objective of reinforcing the very commanders it is often tasked to investigate. This makes a recent development in the Air Force’s IG community less surprising than it might be to the uninitiated.

In a “Notice to Airmen” dated October 21st and sent to senior Air Force commanders as well as their IGs, Lt. Gen. Gregory Biscone, the service’s top IG, provided “summaries of recent issues and trends” observed in IG investigations. In the email accompanying the letter, Biscone noted that his intent was to “help prevent missteps.” The letter itself adds the additional purpose of avoiding “misperception of senior leaders.”

To accomplish these goals, Biscone provided insight into a number of timely and relevant topics. Two of these in particular are worthy of close review.

Here’s the first, highlighted by the red:

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This is a curious and distressing formulation. Two key subtleties lurk in its reasonable sounding language.

First, it employs the ambiguous phrase “without ensuring the procedural correctness” as a soft substitute for the more accurate “without due process.” This is a way of perceptually moving the locus of accountability away from commanders and onto individuals receiving improper adverse actions. It’s not that they didn’t deserve what was done to them. It’s that commanders somehow committed a process error.

This misses the point entirely. The point is the process. “Procedural correctness” isn’t some perfunctory element of punishing someone. It’s the very thing that determines whether a commander is justified in issuing punishment. If the process isn’t followed correctly … if it doesn’t properly find facts to support suspicions and doesn’t recognize and honor the protections of the accused, then it can’t properly lead to discipline.

The second problem here is Biscone’s portrayal of process flaws as merely administrative or paperwork problems rather than matters of substance. This, again, is a way of letting blameworthy commanders who violated proper procedures off the moral hook. The implication is that they were correct to have dealt out discipline but got the paperwork wrong. Accountability is further elided by the implication that commanders are just the formal signatories of a process conducted by others. To the extent this is true, it’s totally unacceptable.

It’s disappointing that such an important communication took these wrong turns. The Air Force has been struggling with how to calibrate the application of disciplinary authority. The IG could have and should have used this opportunity to reinforce commanders’ ethical duty to fairly weigh evidence and responsibly constrain the exercise of their authority within prescribed processes. Instead, he basically told them to make sure they get the paperwork right when they punish someone.

But the second excerpt is even more unsettling.

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Keen observers will note that this is the provision of federal law that became important after Maj. Gen. James Post told a crowd of airmen that if they communicated an opinion to Congress that was inconsistent with the Air Force’s corporate position on retiring the A-10, they were committing treason. An investigation found that Post had unlawfully restricted the protected communication of subordinates.

Here, Biscone invokes the statute not to remind commanders that their airmen are protected in certain communications, or to admonish them that safeguarding the civil liberties of subordinates is a duty of leadership. He just wants to let them know that if airmen are making protected communications, a commander will need a separate reason to inflict punishment.

It might be unfair to construe Biscone as winking at commanders — tipping them off that they need to cover the pretext of reprisal by having another explanation the IG can accept. But it would be unduly generous by the same degree to let him off the hook for failing to reinforce the importance actually following the law in its fullest spirit rather than just enough to avoid getting into trouble.

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This exposes the problem with the Air Force IG system. There is a fundamental conflict of interest baked into the system that warps the perspective driving how the IG does its work. It’s not about seeking out systemic problems — or at least, it’s not just about that. It’s also become about looking out for commanders. The IG isn’t a watchdog keeping commanders in check and putting them on notice that it’s willing to hold them accountable. It’s more like a wingman … clearing their six-o-clock and advising them of threats and how to outmaneuver them.

In this case, such wingmanship takes the form of giving field commanders tips about how to be safe from culpability in an investigation, which is distinct from advising them to remain true to their ethical obligations and official duties, letting any investigative chips fall where they may. This should have been a message about how to follow due process when punishing, and the importance of respecting the rights of subordinates even when those rights are inconvenient. Instead, it reads like a tactical manual for how to survive an IG inquiry.

Things like this cause airmen to lose any residual confidence in the IG process. They perceive, accurately, that the IG isn’t the impartial or independent agency they’ve been led to believe, but merely an extension of the chain of command designed to seal its flanks against threats to command effectiveness or institutional interests.

This chills inclination to use the IG process in much the same way it is chilled by fear of command reprisal. Airmen have noticed who nearly always prevails in any contest between their individual rights and the service’s institutional interests.

Biscone’s letter was marked “For Official Use Only” and contained additional language geared toward limiting its distribution. It wasn’t sent to airmen — only to commanders and IGs. It’s obvious the service sought to limit the exposure of the information contained within. Given the likely injury to confidence in the IG process as airmen come to realize how it actually works, such secrecy is understandable.

But it’s not acceptable. Airmen deserve to be given a full appreciation — as full as that given to their bosses — of how IG processes work to resolve their complaints. If the IG process is just a game to demonstrate pro forma diligence while protecting the institution against criticism or embarrassment, airmen deserve to know that before they take the risk and make the investment necessary to submit a complaint. 

The Air Force should immediately release the entire body of the Biscone letter to the field, explain its contents to the rank and file, and answer their questions. It should also take a fresh look at how it holds itself accountable. The current approach is not just failing, it’s facilitating a larger institutional failure by delaying official recognition of pervasive corruption in the officer corps.

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