December 11, 2013 Updated: December 11, 2013 at 10:19 am
The Air Force Inspector General will investigate the case of former Air Force Academy cadet Eric Thomas, who was expelled in April for actions he said were part of his work as a confidential informant, the academy's top general announced late Tuesday.
In addition, Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson said she will review the academy's disenrollment process and that she intends to "eliminate the need for cadet confidential informants in the cadet wing."
Johnson announced the actions just over a week after a Dec. 1 Gazette investigation showed that the Air Force employs a system of secret cadet informants at the academy to search out misconduct.
The Gazette report showed how some cadet informants are then expelled for misconduct they incurred while working as informants and that the Air Force's Office of Special Investigations, which runs the informant program, does not explain to the academy the nature of its work.
Here is Johnson's statement:
"The Office of the Air Force Inspector General is initiating an investigation into the Office of Special Investigation's handling of former Cadet Eric Thomas while he was an Air Force Academy Cadet.
"In addition, as the Air Force's Academy Superintendent, I have directed an executive Review of the Academy's disenrollment process.
"As we work to improve and strengthen our culture of commitment and respect, I personally will oversee any use of the (confidential informant) program with my long term intent to eliminate the need for cadet confidential informants."
The Gazette report detailed how the Air Force uses the informant program to go after drug use, sexual assault and other misconduct among cadets. Informants were sometimes recruited through long interrogations, then sent to gather evidence, snapping photos, wearing recording devices and filing secret reports. The Gazette detailed how student informants have sometimes been encouraged to break academy rules by their OSI handlers, then disavowed when they got in trouble.
Former cadet Thomas, who was the focus of The Gazette report, worked dozens of cases for OSI, including high-profile sexual assault cases, but said, "When it all hit the fan, they didn't know me anymore."
Thomas' agent was told not to explain his work to the academy, and Thomas was expelled six weeks before graduation.
In its initial reaction to The Gazette report, the academy last week released a statement questioning the accuracy of The Gazette's reporting. The academy said it stood by its use of confidential student informants, noting that it's a practice used across the Air Force that provides what it calls "vital information about criminal activities." The academy also dismissed Thomas as a cadet with a long history of misconduct who was not officer material and who did not get involved with OSI until after he was in trouble.
The Gazette then published a report quoting an unnamed Air Force source with direct knowledge of the case who confirmed Thomas' account and showed how OSI and academy commanders could have been misinformed.
At the same time, academy graduates, who make up much of the Air Force leadership, expressed dismay at the informant program, nothing that it was incongruous with the trust and integrity needed to form good leaders.
Thomas, who returned to his home in South Dakota, has appealed his expulsion and wants to be commissioned as an officer and become a pilot. He has contacted his commanders, the Air Force inspector general and his Congressional representatives in an effort to have his expulsion overturned.
He reacted late Tuesday to Johnson's statement with guarded optimism. He said he had not heard from the Air Force.
"I hope this isn't just talk, and something will be done," he said. "I hope they can get the truth, and the academy can do the right thing for all cadets."