Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Mark A Welsh III. Photo: Department of Defense.

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Mark A Welsh III. Photo: Department of Defense.

Back in September, JQP brought you a documentary detailing the exploits of the A-10 and battlefield airmen in Afghanistan. It was a video produced by an Air Force Combat Camera videographer that had existed since the previous fall, but that the Air Force had never released.

The decision to publish it despite the Air Force’s choice to suppress was precipitated by media inquiries stretching across the previous ten months in which I sought official answers about the documentary’s existence, origins, and the rationale for its non-release. Those inquiries dead-ended, and my channel with the Air Staff on this issue fell silent.

Upon releasing it, I speculated that the Air Force had strangled the production out of concern it would damage an ongoing political initiative to mothball the A-10. The Air Force eventually lost that campaign, with Congress using strong language to bar the A-10’s retirement for the foreseeable future.

After the video went public, my colleague Steven Mayne — a regular contributor to JQP and consistent participant in the unofficial Air Force conversation — filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), within which he requested copies of internal coordination concerning the video, the decision to bar its release, and responses to media inquires. A retired SNCO, Mayne wanted to know who decided the phenomenal work of a communications professional, completed at great personal risk, shouldn’t see the light of day … and why.

What he got back, provided below, is a distressing example of the rise of unaccountable conduct and legalized corruption in America’s Air Force. The 55 pages chronicled here are almost entirely redacted … any trace of accountability scrubbed. We don’t know for certain who made decisions or exactly why they made them, which limits how much we can challenge the individuals or their reasoning. Rather than faithfully explain itself, the service chose to pervert the purpose of FOIA by using it to provide an almost complete non-answer cloaked in the garb of legal legitimacy.

But, in a sense, the non-answer is an answer in itself, and we can give that answer additional meaning by considering some of the sparing detail that remains visible in the report.

Along with XXXX, XXXX, and XXXX, as well as XXXX, here are some highlights (and lowlights) to watch for as you peruse … along with a disclaimer: the pages are sometimes duplicative, confusing, non-chronological, and not numbered. This is the stellar, helpful fashion in which the information was provided to Mr. Mayne.

On page 1, note the cryptic explanations associated with the FOIA exemptions used to justify non-release of information. Then surf over to the Air Force’s own FOIA Exemption Guide and note how the rationale provided in no way reflects what the actual rules state, to say nothing of the intent behind those rules. The service is misapplying rules meant to provide narrow privacy and legal protections to instead shield itself from transparency, the opposite of what the FOIA process is supposed to do.

This is not only a failure by the Air Force to follow its own rules, but a clear violation of a Presidential order, formalized in Department of Justice memoranda, to “take affirmative steps to make information public” and to “adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure.” If you find it startling that the service’s most senior officials so brazenly flout orders given that the business of national defense depends on good order and discipline, you’re not alone.

On page 12, you’ll note the first clue of a campaign to suppress the video, when an Air Forces Central (AFCENT) Public Affairs (PA) officer instructs others on the email chain to destroy any existing copies of the documentary. The claim made is that the video was only for internal PA purposes and an alternative will be provided “if/when” available. We know now that no alternative version was ever provided. Even if it had been, this wouldn’t seem to justify destroying the previous one. 

On page 17, you’ll see a note of approval from Gen. Welsh. This traces to the lone bright spot in the entire report … an email from AFCENT PA on the following page recounting the performance of the videographer, who participated in a dismounted patrol outside the wire in order to gather footage. Everyone is quick to join the celebratory chorus heralding this airman’s performance. But a few months later, when it came time to decide whether the work he produced at grave risk should be released, the tone chilled and then leapt behind a wall of redaction. More on that below.

You’ll note also several pages of PA coordination following an inquiry about the video from Elizabeth Kreft, a reporter at The Blaze who received a copy of the documentary from one of her sources. She lodges her request on page 27. Air Force spokesman Chris Karns ultimately tells her “I am told the video is still in coordination.” This makes it seem like Karns’ insight is limited. But by the time Kreft made her December 9th, 2014 request, Karns had participated in an intense staffing and coordination effort concerning the video, ultimately getting marching orders from the highest levels concerning its release.

That process and those marching orders were catalyzed by my own inquiry on November 27th (appears on page 36). It kicked off a firestorm of frantic email exchanges involving Karns, AFCENT, leaders and PA officials at Bagram, and eventually the entirety of the Air Staff, to include the Chief of Public Affairs, the Chief of Staff, and the Secretary of the Air Force.

The chatter begins with Karns exclaiming that “the video was never cleared. I am perplexed as to how Tony Carr received it … I was told it would not be released.”

This statement is problematic for two reasons. First, it shows that someone made a decision that the video would never be released, which differs from the “still in coordination” claim Karns would later make to Elizabeth Kreft. It also contradicts another claim he would make to me the following September, when he told me “I would not have visibility over internal videos that are subject to a security and policy review process.”

But Karns’ obfuscation isn’t the most interesting thing in this document. It’s what happens as the email exchange, re-labeled a few times to reflect its urgency, ricochets back and forth across several continents … publicists and commanders discussing how to deal with it. The discussion eventually culminates with Karns teeing up a message for Brig. Gen. Kathleen Cook, the service’s top publicist. Cook then tees up a message to Sec. James and Gen. Welsh (page 48) copying every senior official on the Air Staff. Most likely, she was explaining that the video might land on JQP, asking for guidance, and providing a recommendation.

Sec. James gave a response within 9 minutes. We don’t know what that response said, but more internal coordination with AFCENT followed, and the video was never released. With that, the conversation died. I never received a response to my inquiry — not even to verify that the video was permanently embargoed. Whatever the Secretary said, her guidance must have included the decision, or at least concurrence, to suppress the documentary and ignore my queries.

Keeping the video out of view — and refusing to explain why — stands in contrast with Sec. James’ prior insistences that she values openness and her promises to make the Air Force more transparent as its leader. I discussed her rhetoric on this subject, and its variance from reality, in another article earlier this year. On her watch, the Air Force has become more opaque and less accountable.

With that backdrop established, have a look for yourself. I’ll provide a few more thoughts after.

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We can’t see what happened here … at least not clearly. What we can see is that leaders at the very highest levels of the Air Force were in the decision loop, and they chose to keep this documentary from the public.

Personally, I think that’s shameful. When you have a choice between doing what is politically expedient and doing what will honor and showcase the people who make the mission happen, you choose the latter every time and let the political chips fall where they may. If there’s a legitimate reason you can’t affirmatively provide information, you explain that reason and stand by it. You don’t hide, obfuscate, avoid, and misrepresent … especially when serving in a leadership role where others will key off your example.

Oh yeah, and the airmen. The ones senior leaders claim to care about. They deserve to have their stories told and not watered down to feed someone’s pet agenda. They also deserve the dignity of serving an institution that upholds its values rather than openly trampling them, which creates cynicism and corrodes trust. They don’t want to be part of something oily or underhanded. Does this FOIA response vindicate the value of “Integrity First?” In the answer to that question lies one of the most concerning and evident truths about the 2015 Air Force. 

Integrity, as a guiding value … is dead. And it was slain by those most responsible for safeguarding it. Many airmen have lost trust in their leaders and those who speak on their behalf, and conduct like this explains why. 

Note also that the Air Force published a very similar documentary about the F-16 right around the time this suppression decision was made. This nullifies claims about security, classification, or force protection.

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Abuse of the FOIA process has become a normalized deviation. These are public officials doing public work on public time with public funds. Nothing redacted in these emails is classified. They’re blacked out to spare senior officials the embarrassment of having their decisions made transparent. This is what legalized corruption looks like, and it is anathema to accountable government. Free from public scrutiny, officials enjoy basically unlimited latitude to do whatever they want without ethical tethers … with the comforting knowledge that a phalanx of lawyers, publicists, and bureaucrats will shield them from ever having to explain themselves.

Why does any of this matter? Because if the USAF is telling half-truths and creating half-narratives to feed its own political agenda, it is abusing its power. Americans are entitled to know how their defense is being effectuated, how their annual $120B is being spent, and how effectively the leaders to whom they entrust their sons and daughters are performing. They need to be armed with truth to make accurate inputs to their legislators, who control the purse strings of war. This is just part of why transparency matters, and why the Air Force is betraying its most sacred duties by manipulating legal loopholes to sidestep honesty in its dealings with the public.

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“Grunts in the Sky” (the name given to the finished version of “Hawg”) has still not been published by the Air Force. We don’t know exactly why … which leaves us to draw the conclusions reasonably supported by such a grotesque mutilation of a process that exists to give citizens transparent access to government.

Steven Mayne has filed an appeal claiming the Air Force improperly applied FOIA exemptions. Depending on the outcome, consultations with FOIA attorneys and watchdog groups might come next.

In the meantime, this unacceptable response, and the story behind it, should be subjects of Congressional interest … and airmen should reserve a tough question or two about trust and integrity for their next mandated VIP tour.

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