Back in April, a group of NCOs physically apprehended and forcibly removed a civilian from a retirement tribute at Travis Air Force Base. The civilian, Oscar Rodriguez, was an invited guest of the honoree, MSgt Chuck Roberson, who wanted him there to perform a recitation to accompany the folding of Roberson’s retirement flag. When Rodriguez began performing that recitation, a group of uniformed airmen approached and ejected him from the premises as their commanding officer sat passively in the audience.
We broke the story and covered it here extensively. The core theme of that coverage was what it seemed to demonstrate about an Air Force culture we’ve been critiquing over the past few years. A culture where commanders enforce patently unlawful or made-up rules. A culture where airmen take too little notice of unlawful orders. A culture where the alleged adults stand by and watch while clearly unacceptable conduct unfolds. A culture where, most damningly, the service rationalizes and attempts to justify clearly wrong behavior because it would rather save face than discipline wrongdoers and admit it contributed to their misconduct with bad policies and poor leadership.
At the time, spokesman Robert Couse-Baker said the following:
“The disruption of a recent retirement ceremony at Travis Air Force Base, California by [Mr.] Rodriguez stemmed from an unplanned participation during the flag-folding ceremony portion of the event … Rodriguez ignored numerous requests to respect the Air Force prescribed ceremony and unfortunately was forcibly removed.”
Statements like this are part of the problem. The correct response would have condemned the violent behavior, full stop, leaving discussion of the invalid provocation for later. As I wrote at the time:
This incident evinces the obvious sickness in the moral heart of the Air Force, which is slowly strangling its own core values and serially defiling the Bill of Rights in furtherance of a culture demanding obedient conformity. The fact that three NCOs carried out an unlawful order to inflict violence on a civilian to prevent him from exercising “unauthorized patriotism” is downright alarming. It demands a swift response beyond Couse-Baker’s assurance that “this is an active investigation and more facts will emerge in time.”
Now, the “active investigation” heralded by Couse-Baker is complete and has been made public, albeit in heavily redacted form. As is our practice here, we provide it below for you to digest on your own terms before we give our view.
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This investigation is the worst I’ve seen in years of reviewing IG inquiries. Mr. Matthew Bartlett, the civilian Inspector General (IG) who conducted it, doesn’t even make a token attempt at professionalism. This is a brazenly manufactured paper “show of force” designed to give Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James political cover with legislators angrily demanding accountability. For the reasons outlined below and many more, those legislators should refuse to honor this report and demand a probe be conducted by an objective investigator outside the Air Force. They should also subpoena James, Air Force IG Lt. Gen. Anthony Rock (who put his stamp of approval on this disgrace) and Bartlett to testify on the Hill and explain themselves.
Just a few of the primary issues with this report:
It is Tainted by Command Influence.
This is basically true of all IG investigations, given that the role of the IG is to protect the chain of command rather than hold it accountable. But in this case, we needn’t speculate because Bartlett made it explicit in an email response to Chuck Roberson, the man whose retirement was ruined. The email showed up on Steven Mayne’s “amn/nco/snco” facebook page. Check it out.
That’s not how this is supposed to work. When an investigation report is completed, sending it to senior leaders with enough lead time to prepare for a public reaction is justified, even if it’s a little grimy yet consistent with the Air Force’s PR culture. “Coordination” and “review” by senior leaders suggests the potential for changes, adjustments, edits, re-directs, and the concoction of alternative rationales for any leadership figure implicated. This email should trigger another investigation into exactly what changes to this report resulted from coordination and review by senior leaders. It should also nullify the report in its entirety, necessitating a fresh review by an objective investigator.
Its Conclusions Are Not Supported by the Evidence
The report takes great pains to reach the conclusion that Rodriguez wasn’t removed from the ceremony to restrict his religious expression. This is not supported by the report’s own interviews, which paint a muddled picture on this account. It’s clear from the interviews that Rodriguez’s intent to read a script with Christian intonations was controversial, and that this controversy had something to do with what eventually occurred. Put this together with the fact that the Air Force changed the instruction attempting to restrict religious speech at retirement tributes, and it’s at least as likely that the opposite of what Bartlett concludes is true. Of course, without gathering all of the relevant evidence, it’s not possible to draw accurate conclusions, which leads to our next point.
Key Witnesses Were Not Interviewed
Bartlett deliberately omitted the witnesses Roberson recommended he interview to understand what happened and why. Again, we needn’t speculate about this since Bartlett admitted it in an email to Roberson later published by Steven Mayne:
Here, Bartlett admits to conducting his investigation improperly. He interviewed until the scales indicated “preponderance” supporting a particular conclusion, and then stopped — conveniently having only surveyed one side of the controversy. That’s not how this works. All relevant witnesses must be interviewed. In some cases, the testimony of later witnesses will contradict, disprove, or cast doubt upon the testimony of prior witnesses, tipping the scales back in the other direction. Had he interviewed everyone with a relevant insight into the matter, he might have discovered new leads, new witnesses, and new avenues of inquiry. This is what one does when the truth is the objective — no matter who it implicates.
Had Roberson’s witnesses been interviewed, they might have explained to Bartlett how Sovitsky cheered on the removal of Rodriguez from the ceremony. Check out the photo below — again from internet sleuth Steven Mayne — which shows Sovitsky either giving the bouncers a thumbs-up or a “get him outta here” signal. There’s nothing about this in the IG report, which should have made Sovitsky’s conduct during the incident a central point of inquiry.
This is a core and damningly revealing omission. Either Sovitsky ordered Rodriguez to be removed, or at the very least he sat idle while Air Force NCOs physically assaulted a civilian who had every right to be where he was and doing what he was doing. Only by avoiding this conclusion can the IG do what it does — protect the chain of command rather than hold it accountable.
It Ignored the Worst Misconduct
The video evidence in this case supplies prima facie evidence that several NCOs committed simple assault on a civilian, a misdemeanor under Section 24o of the California Penal Code. Compliance with a commander’s orders is not a valid defense. Nor is following an Air Force Instruction. Nor is it necessary for the victim to have sustained a physical injury. Barring a claim of self-defense, which is nullified by the video evidence showing Rodriguez wasn’t causing or intending to cause harm to anyone, there is no valid defense against this charge, which is punishable by up to 6 months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
This should have been investigated by the chain of command and the offenders punished accordingly. It goes without saying — or should — that it’s never acceptable for airmen to violate criminal law. To test the principle, imagine Sovitsky had witnessed four of his NCOs driving drunk or shoplifting. Would anyone accept that it would be acceptable for him to look the other way?
He’s not alone in his failure. Every commander in the chain between Sovitsky and Deborah Lee James utterly failed in the basic duty to enforce the most basic rules securing good order and discipline. Every one of them should either swiftly correct that mistake or step down immediately. We cannot abide an Air Force where assault is tolerated, and the irony that this occurs against the backdrop of a new “green dot violence prevention” campaign is absurd and painful for an institution trying desperately to turn the corner after years of absentee leadership.
The IG was the wrong tool for this job, which is likely why the IG was chosen. A criminal probe might have landed Sovitsky and his thugs in the dock for assault, and their defense to the charges might have exposed the unconstitutionally restrictive instruction that fueled this mess and has since been overhauled without anyone being held accountable for ignoring repeated urgings to fix it before this all happened.
Now there will almost certainly be a civil trial, and Oscar Rodriguez will ask the court system to remediate the harms inflicted on him. His lawyers won’t be bound by the chain of command. The evidence they gather won’t be manipulable by hacks pretending to investigate while riding flank for corrupt commanders. In the end, the resulting publicity will be far worse for the Air Force than what it would have endured with a simple apology to Rodriguez coupled with appropriate administrative discipline for the offenders.
This just goes to show that when your focus is on how things will play from a PR standpoint, you make short-term decisions that end up not being in your long-term best interest. Conversely, when you focus authentically on doing the right thing and respond accordingly, mistakes and misconduct have a short public shelf life.
In the world after this report, it’s acceptable to batter someone as long as you can cite an acceptable rationale when later questioned. It’s OK to deny someone the right to exercise free speech as long as you can come up with some other reason later for what you did. It’s OK to be a commander whose NCOs behave like thugs so long as SAF/IG has your back.
In the world after this report, you can be assaulted and battered in a public place by military officers acting on tacit or explicit authority from their boss. They will face no recourse. You will achieve no redress. Any investigations conducted will reframe, selectively inquire, and ultimately explain away everything.
This is a missed opportunity for the USAF to get past the decrepit authority and compliance driven Groupthink culture of the past two decade and actually demonstrate commitment to principle. Instead, it is simply saving face … tarnishing the reputation of a veteran in the pages of an embarrassingly amateurish report to justify the abhorrent climate of a unit whose commander should have been relieved the day after this happened … because he failed to stand up and stop his NCOs from committing an unjustified and unprovoked violent act.
That’s as simple as this is. The IG report is an attempt to complicate it. And this is why the IG was chosen to do the investigation … because, as I have said many times, the IG exists to protect the chain of command, not to hold it accountable. In this case, the IG’s gambit is to shift the discussion to one about religious expression and then claim that wasn’t the motivation for the assault.
But this misses the point – the only point that really matters in all of this: whether Air Force NCOs are capable of detecting and resisting unlawful orders, and whether Air Force commanders have the impulses and the courage to stop unlawful conduct when it’s happening right in front of them.
On this score, the IG report doesn’t just fail … it dissembles and misleads.
Or at least it tries.