lichte

JQP first reported the news in August of last year that an active duty female Colonel had lodged a sexual assault complaint against a retired General, later revealed to be Art Lichte, who commanded the nation’s mobility air forces from 2007 to 2010.

The situation created a legal and public relations minefield for the service. At the time, I wrote that the case carried

” … obvious public implications for an institution that has struggled with the issue of sexual assault and is seen by many to cultivate an unacceptable double standard … ” 

Yesterday, the news broke that former Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James had reprimanded Lichte, demoting him two ranks in retirement at a toll of $60,000 in annual pension. She included in the letter of reprimand a scorching rebuke, denouncing Lichte for placing the alleged victim

“in a position in which she could have believed that she had no choice but to engage in these sex acts given your far superior grade, position, and significant ability to affect her career.”

The public unfolding of this scandal traces a grimly familiar path. A senior officer seemingly unmoored from basic moral and ethical conduct using his power to fulfil his selfish urges through abuse of a subordinate, proving himself just as susceptible to criminality as the airmen routinely punished under the color of his legal authority. This classic power drunkenness is unacceptably common among Air Force generals, casting into doubt the service’s development of senior leaders.

But in the margins around this narrative outline, there are many questions.

The first is whether  the punishment is too mild. If James believes Lichte used his position to coerce sex from a subordinate on three occasions, an administrative reprimand doesn’t go nearly far enough. Lower-ranking airmen are routinely jailed for far less serious misconduct.

But the second question is whether the punishment is too harsh. We know there’s an allegation (which Lichte’s attorney says came in an unsworn statement), but we don’t know what the ensuing investigation actually found. We don’t know the nature or quantum of the evidence. News reports hint at a paucity of witnesses, which implies this is the word of one officer against another.

James says the victim had no choice but to sleep with Lichte, which is a very serious charge indeed. But Lichte hasn’t been given the opportunity to confront his accuser, which would force her to publicly support allegations which refer to events a decade in the past. We know we’re not talking about a child, but an experienced officer. It’s not asking too much for her to explain how she was coerced. There’s a world of legal and moral difference between a star-studded leader capitalizing on the seductive power of his position … and a sex-crazed lech removing meaningful choice from a sexual target by holding her career to ransom. 

We do know Lichte has admitted to having sex with his subordinate, which he claims was consensual. But James’s reprimand publicly convicts him of sexual coercion, and uses this more serious charge as the basis for punishment. She goes on to say that Lichte is only spared court-martial by the statute of limitations. This would imply James saw criminality in the report of investigation. But we see no record to this effect publicly, and thus can’t meaningfully assess whether James used her own power responsibly. Does the investigation actually support what she says Lichte is being punished for? Did she abuse her power by straying beyond the evidence? If all Lichte did was consensually sleep with a subordinate, does this justify catastrophic reputational damage and a $1M fine he can’t meaningfully appeal? Should we be exacting criminal penalties from someone for conduct the statute of limitations prevents us from prosecuting? Do we want to incentivize putative victims to come forward a decade after their victimization, believing they can still have their complaints heard despite legal barriers to the contrary?

Maybe the bigger question is why this action by SecAF wasn’t revealed by the Air Force, which instead concealed it successfully for nearly two months until reporters eventually exposed it. Even now, there’s been no official acknowledgement of the reprimand and no explanation to justify it. The action arguably skirts the line of removing property from a citizen without due process, something the Air Force routinely does by relying on administrative remedies to address alleged criminal activity. And we can’t inquire about this because the official who did it is no longer available for questioning.

I’m guessing there are two reasons the Air Force buried this action. The first was to dodge accountability. James is no longer SecAF and therefore no longer bound to respond publicly to questions about her actions. Had she rolled out this reprimand in December when she actually signed it, she’d have faced pressure to actually address some of the questions raised above. This would have interfered with her self-congratulatory multi-month world tour, and may have exposed her own power abuses. Did she crush Lichte more than the evidence permitted because of her own feminist views? Did she stray beyond the evidence to bolster the service’s reputation and resistance to legislative reform proposals that would reduce the legal authority of general officers? Or did she fail to go far enough in pushing for an investigation into Lichte for fear of what might be discovered and how it would reflect on the Air Force?

The second reason for the Air Force to hide the action was shield itself against institutional discredit. In the eyes of the service, publicly vilifying accused airmen is in its best interest, as it makes the generals look tough on crime. But when it’s the generals who are accused, to publicly vilify them is to stipulate to being run by criminals. This raises deeper questions about how generals are developed and selected, the answers to which would reveal patterns of corruption, cronyism, and bureaucratic ineptitude. It would show just how little the service understands itself, and the ridiculously scarce moral and ethical commitment required to earn one or more stars.

The Air Force has a huge problem on its hands with this case. It’s a foregone conclusion that anyone prosecuted for anything remotely similar under the banner of Lichte’s authority will argue his disciplinary decisions were tainted by a desire to conceal his own conduct. Similar questions might be raised about cases that were not prosecuted. Anyone promoted under Lichte’s sponsorship (including his alleged victim) will be newly scrutinized, and those passed over will be the ones calling for the scrutiny.

All of this will be seen as sauce for the goose by pissed off rank-and-file airmen who are tired of being subjected to endless preaching and browbeating about sexual assault, often made to feel they are presumed assailants. They’re tired of the false meme that generals are morally superior and thus entitled to do the preaching.

It will also be new and potent ammunition for legislators who rightly believe generals have no business overseeing a system of criminal law. 

But here’s the real puzzle. How was the alleged victim in this case so traumatized that she had to bring this complaint forward six years after Lichte retired … but not traumatized enough to have brought it up before? This isn’t to cast doubt on her credibility, but to raise the question of why anyone would wait until criminal responsibility is all but impossible before bringing a serious allegation forward. Some will speculate that this is about score-settling or attempting to re-write a consensual history into a forcible one. Some have speculated privately that Lichte made her promises that never came true, and this is her way of reneging in-kind. Others will say none of this is abnormal conduct from a sexually traumatized victim.

But there’s another explanation, and a potentially explosive one. What if the victim did complain before 2016 but nothing was ever done? What if there was knowledge Lichte was using his position to stalk for extramarital sex partners?

If this is the case, it would feed the perception that the Air Force is bitten with an unshakeable and corrupt double standard. It talks a good game but punishes based on rank and position rather than culpability. To conceal this double standard, it employs a public relations army that constructs and reinforces narratives about sexual unruliness by mere mortals being zealously reined in by star-wearing executives. At the time Lichte is alleged to have been engaged in this misconduct, the Air Force was in a daily political skirmish to maintain control of its legal system, routinely misrepresenting and downplaying misconduct by senior officials to preserve its public leverage.

If this debacle was covered up as part of that campaign, the house of cards will catastrophically tumble. Stay tuned, because James’s attempt to put a lid on this situation has potentially blown the lid off it instead.