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Occasionally, Air Force commanders will exercise their authority improperly. That this happens is not in dispute, and if it were, that dispute would be instantly dissolved by historical and contemporary evidence. It would also be confounded by the existence of the Inspector General (IG) system, which would have no reason to exist were it not for the recognition that sometimes, the chain of command malfunctions and does not self-correct.

This reality is also acknowledged in public statements by the Air Force.

In responding to allegations of potential abuses of power by commanders, spokesman Christopher Karns recently asserted 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.”

This sounds reassuring. But Karns’ inexplicit promise that airmen can expect remedies via the IG when they find themselves at odds with the chain of command is either willfully or unwittingly false. Airmen cannot reasonably entertain such an expectation.

As I wrote recently, the IG is not a watchdog so much as a guard dog. It’s not there to keep an eye on the chain of command. It’s there to keep an eye out for threats to the chain of command. The Air Force admits as much in its official guidance, Air Force Instruction 90-301:

IGs serve as an extension of their commander by acting as his/her eyes and ears to be alert to issues affecting the organization.”

This makes it unsurprising that IGs routinely work to turn off complaints rather than zealously pursue the right outcomes for those complaining of abuse or reprisal. But even when complaints are pursued, airmen have little expectation that they’ll see a meaningful resolution of a complaint. A recent case illustrates this.

The case involves an instructor pilot at Laughlin Air Force Base — one of the three currently at the center of another IG review directed by the Air Force Chief of Staff. When this pilot was initially placed under investigation for drug use — an allegation later disproven — his group commander, Col. Timothy MacGregor, gave him an order after his initial interview with the Office of Special Investigations (OSI). The order insisted that the pilot

“not discuss the details or nature of your interview, the investigation overall, or anything related to said interview or investigation with anyone except me; your squadron commander; OSI; or your Area Defense Counsel (ADC).”

Astute readers will note several fundamental deficiencies with this order.

First, it provides an extremely limited list of permissible contacts. In doing so, it restricts the officer, who is under career-threatening criminal investigation, from seeking counseling from a mental health professional, chaplain, spouse, other family member, confidante, or anyone else the officer might turn to for help. In this way, the order contradicts core principles of resiliency and suicide prevention. Airmen in crisis are socially isolated, emotionally vulnerable, and at elevated risk of self-destructive thoughts and actions. The opportunity to associate freely enough to keep such tendencies in check is important. This was ignored in MacGregor’s order.

Second, the order is unlawful on its face. MacGregor’s not a judge, and lacks the authority to issue judicially-styled gag orders. If such an order were deemed important to an ongoing investigation, it should have been sough from someone qualified to consider the legal merits and issue it legitimately.

A properly qualified order would have taken into account how limiting speech and association liberty can impede the ability of someone accused of a crime to raise a proper defense. These impositions must be weighed against the risk of a compromised investigation. In this case, MacGregor’s seizure of quasi-judicial authority for himself bypassed these considerations, effectively robbing his accused subordinate of the ability to marshal appropriate advice, enlist witnesses, or seek qualified representation.

Note how MacGregor’s order assumes the officer will consult with an ADC rather than seek out a civilian lawyer. This unacceptable limitation on due process totally negates the legality of the order. It also underscores that MacGregor had no idea what he was doing.

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Having been given an unlawful order, the accused did what he was entitled to do and indeed what our system expects: he violated the order to the extent necessary to get the counseling he needed and to organize a defense for himself. When MacGregor learned of this, he retaliated, issuing the officer a sternly-worded Letter of Admonishment (LOA). MacGregor cited a violation of Article 92 of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), ignoring that the article applies only to lawful orders.

Having been unlawfully restricted and further tarred with an administrative reprisal, the accused officer did what our system expects, and indeed what spokesman Karns, speaking for the Air Force, posits should be done in such a situation: he filed an IG complaint.

That complaint alleged MacGregor had violated a plentiful array of laws, including defense department instructions concerning counseling services, chaplains, and mental health services. It also called into question the consistency of MacGregor’s actions with the First Amendment as well as Art. 38 of the UCMJ, which provides that  an accused member is entitled to seek and employ a civilian defense attorney.

But most presciently, the complaint alleged MacGregor had violated Title 10 of the US Code, Section 1034, which provides, inter alia, that 

“no person may restrict a member of the armed forces in communicating with a member of Congress or an Inspector General.”

This provision is clear and unambiguous. It means military superiors can’t bully and intimidate subordinates into political obedience by issuing unlawful orders under the false color of legal authority. It means, in this case, that MacGregor wasn’t authorized to give an accused officer a definitive list of permissible contacts that excluded the IG. In doing so, MacGregor almost certainly violated federal law.

The Air Force has struggled to maintain itself within this particular constraint, and that struggle is vividly exemplified in this case. Given the manifest problems with MacGregor’s actions, the target of his order and reprisal likely expected favorable resolution of his IG complaint. 

On the contrary, here’s the substance of what he received after a five month wait:

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This is a pathetic response. It arrives at an incorrect conclusion, which would be bad enough. But it also fails to provide any analysis upon which that conclusion is based. This effectively denies the complainant any opportunity to challenge the finding, since by giving no rationale, the response renders itself unfalsifiable. It also addresses only one violation of the half dozen cited by the officer in his submission, sidestepping basic responsiveness to the complaint. What about the rest of the laws that were broken?

Another officer swept up in the Laughlin dragnet received a similar order and filed a similar complaint. His was also dismissed by the IG in like fashion.

While distressing, none of this is surprising, which is even more distressing. The IG is there to help the chain of command minimize the impact of its abuses and mistakes, not to genuinely provide redress for airmen victimized by those abuses and mistakes.

A response like this one is dishonest and craven. It doesn’t even bother to mask its contempt for doing the right thing … instead proudly parading a flagrant disregard for a properly rendered complaint. 

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In current form, the IG complaint resolution process is a cruel joke. It fools airmen into believing they have a means of seeking accountability when the chain of command abuses them. In reality, it’s a continuation of that abuse … barely obscured behind a thin beard of faux concern that fools only those with the quality of character to believe that the process actually exists to do right by them. It is a high form of bureaucratic cynicism cloaked in just enough pretension to prey on those already scorned by role models to whom they lent their trust.

I contacted Congressman Duncan Hunter’s office for a reaction to this outcome. Hunter has been instrumental in holding the Air Force to account for its treatment of officers caught up in what appears to be an unhinged witch hunt at Laughlin.

Hunter’s spokesman, Joe Kasper, offered the following:

“I think there is a certain level of dishonesty and deceit in how the IG chooses to look at cases and especially this one. It’s presumable that with respect to the Laughlin pilots, the IG is trying to clear the pile. There have been over six complaints, which that alone should say something to the Air Force and the IG about the abuse of authority at Laughlin under Col. Hastings. What the IG needs to realize is that anyone with half a brain sees right through their shell game and when, and even when not, they are trying to protect senior leaders. The IG is supposed to support those who don’t otherwise have a voice or the ability to resolve matters themselves. They are not there to selectively pick winners and losers or try to score points for creativity.”

What this means for airmen is that they have no real means of resisting when unlawfully targeted by abusive commanders. The system the Air Force says is there to bail them out is really just the wolf of the chain of command in sheep’s clothing. The next logical step, when airmen recognize the folly of pursuing IG complaints, is that they will cease relying on the IG. The next logical step after that is the establishment of an even larger zone of avoidance whereby airmen steer well clear of actions that might instigate an unfavorable reaction from a chain of command endowed with the unchecked power to hammer the misaligned back into alignment on pain of professional ruin. When the Air Force reaches a point where airmen are no longer free to challenge one another on the merits, it will be one substantial challenge away from institutional collapse.

When it behaves like this, the IG legitimizes command misconduct rather than addressing it, and is therefore a means of corruption rather than a check against it. In other words, it doesn’t exist to help airmen, and they deserve to know that.

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