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Gazette Premium Content Cadet informant at AFA 'failed' his mission, Air Force report says

2 photos photo - Former Air Force Cadet Eric Thomas shows some of the documents from his file Tuesday, May 28, 2013, the day before the Class of 2013 graduates at the Air Force Academy. Thomas, who was a confidential imformant and critical to several convictions, was kicked out of the academy in March, months short of graduating.  (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) + caption
Former Air Force Cadet Eric Thomas shows some of the documents from his file Tuesday, May 28, 2013, the day before the Class of 2013 graduates at the Air Force Academy. Thomas, who was a confidential imformant and critical to several convictions, was kicked out of the academy in March, months short of graduating. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
By Dave Philipps Updated: March 21, 2014 at 3:32 pm

An Air Force Inspector General report released Thursday defends the use of secret cadet informants at the Air Force Academy and sharply criticizes an expelled cadet named Eric Thomas who broke academy rules while working as one of those informants, saying Thomas "failed" his mission.

The report says Thomas "did a tremendous amount of good in helping solve investigations and then bring those so deserving to justice," but goes on to say the mission of Air Force cadets is to graduate. "None of this is a secret, all cadets are aware of this fact, they know their mission and that to succeed they need to remain focused on that mission throughout their USAFA careers. From the evidence we gathered, Mr. Eric Thomas failed to focus on this mission."

Air Force Office of Special Investigations Report on Inquiry (redacted)

Thomas said the report misses the larger point that he was punished for helping to prevent serious crimes including rape and continues to insist that he should be reinstated.

He also said the report is "bogus on several points," and omits important information that shows the Office of Special Investigations misinformed the academy.

A key witness in the inquiry, the special agent who worked with Thomas, was interviewed extensively but not included in the report.

"It is one of the most masterful jobs of cherry picking facts and distortion I've ever seen," said Skip Morgan, former head of the law department at the academy and Thomas' attorney.

The report comes in response to a series of stories in The Gazette in December that revealed how the Air Force employs a system of cadet informants who search out misconduct, wearing wires and using hidden cameras while deceiving their peers, professors and commanders in violation of the cadet honor code.

It is one of two reports released by the Air Force on Thursday. The second assessed whether the process for expelling cadets is fair. The report concluded it is.

Although there was strong disagreement among Air Force officials quoted in the Inspector General report, it concludes that informants are necessary among cadets and their existence does not "conflict with the Honor Code when viewed in a broader context."

The Gazette series "Honor and Deception" focused on Thomas, who worked for years for the Air Force's secretive Office of Special Investigations. He was told to become close with a number of football players suspected of drug use and sexual assault, wired to record conversations and sent on drug buys.

Along the way, his work also got him in trouble and he was eventually kicked out for misconduct. Most of his demerits stemmed from a night where he stopped a rape in progress.

When Thomas asked to have OSI agents explain his informant work to a disciplinary hearing, agents said they would, then never showed up. OSI then downplayed his role as an informant and denied the existence of documents Thomas sought to help prove his involvement. Thomas was later kicked out of school.

The report confirmed what The Gazette reported - that cadets would "sometimes be 'wired-up' to secretly record conversations, be taught how to look like you were using a drug when you actually weren't, would secretly meet with one or two agents off the base to discuss new information and would be taught the nuances and law concerning the avoidance of entrapment."

The report focused on two issues: Whether it is proper to use cadet informants and whether it was proper to expel Thomas. It concluded both were proper.

But it also includes sharp differences in opinion.

Brig. Gen. Gregory Lengyel, the Commandant of Cadets, who oversees cadet life, told Air Force investigators there seemed to be inherent conflict between the informant system and the cadet honor code, which prohibits cadets from lying.

While favoring some limited cadet informing, such as informing on who attended an illegal party, he said "I am not in favor of cadets actively, you know, trying to set up a drug buy. I'm not in favor of anything, even for law enforcement generation, I do not support cadets violating the Honor Code."

Lengyel said drug use and other violations could be policed through other means that don't rely on deception, such as random drug testing.

"I'm skeptical of trying to turn a cadet into Jason Bourne and make him a secret agent," he concluded.

But Deputy Judge Advocate General Steve Lepper, the Air Force's no. 2 lawyer, whose children have attended the academy, told investigators the honor code sometimes must be broken.

"There might be something else out there that is so important that it would justify a lie," he said. "The security of our nation is one of those things ... the safety of your fellow Airmen in one of those things . I don't want drug dealers. I don't want sexual predators to be in my Air Force. And I'm not going to let the Honor Code be something that people can hide behind."

The report concludes that "cadets can be used as CIs (confidential informants) and their use does not have to place them in conflict with the Honor Code when viewed in a broader context."

On the question of whether it was right to expel Thomas after he helped the Air Force bust drug dealers and rapists, the report concludes it was.

While the report confirms a number of points reported by The Gazette - ones academy officials initially dismissed as inaccurate - it says Thomas was a subpar student who got in trouble on his own, then offered to help OSI only to preserve his student career.

Even though he was helpful, he "did not have the aptitude or character for military service as an officer or as an enlisted airman."

The report shows Thomas was involved with OSI for much longer than the academy initially said. The academy said in December that Thomas did not start working for OSI until he got in trouble for sneaking off campus in November 2011. Thomas maintains he started working for OSI almost a year earlier. The date is important because an earlier date suggests Thomas started working for OSI before he got in trouble, not after.

The report confirms that OSI had Thomas sign papers agreeing to be an informant in April 2011.

But Thomas and the report don't agree on what happened next.

The handling agent who recruited Thomas, Mike Munson, told investigators that Thomas signed papers but was never used on missions. Munson said it was a common practice.

"You would rather have more informants than not enough, and so we kind of ran with the premise of if there was someone that we thought might be able to provide us information, well, let's see if they'll be willing to do that," he said. "It's a bit of a shotgun approach, which is not necessarily the best way to identify good informants but it was a tactic that we used quite a bit."

Munson said he never contacted Thomas after their first meeting. Thomas disagreed, saying Munson specifically told him to get to know guys on the football and basketball teams, and that they spoke on four or five occasions, including a conversation about a specific sexual assault.

The report confirms Thomas then went on to meet 20 times with a second agent, Brandon Enos, and that Thomas wore a hidden recording device twice and "played a significant role in OSI's ability to investigate and the Air Force to eventually prosecute multiple cases of illegal drug usage and sexual assault."

But the report concludes OSI had nothing to do with Thomas getting in trouble for incidences such as leaving base without signing out or being in rooms where there was illegal alcohol use. The report does not mention text messages published by The Gazette showing OSI encouraged these actions.

Thomas also said this is inaccurate. He said he did have demerits for some misconduct, but the vast majority was a direct result of working for OSI.

The report concludes OSI did not disavow Thomas when he was facing expulsion, noting that the local commander of OSI, Vasaga Tilo, briefed the academy administration on Thomas' case before the cadet was kicked out.

But Thomas' lawyer says the report doesn't include statements by Enos to investigators saying the commander knew little of Thomas' case, was unaware the cadet had ever worn a wire, and provided inaccurate information to the administration. Morgan, who also represents Enos, said he witnessed Enos provide this information to investigators.

To try to fight his expulsion, Thomas requested documents showing his informant work under the Freedom of Information Act and was told by OSI there were "no documents." Hundreds of pages of documents were later released to his congressman, but by then Thomas had been expelled.

The report says the erroneous OSI response of "no documents" was the fault of a clerk who was "new to his job."

The report does not include what Morgan witnessed Enos telling investigators: That Tilo saw the Freedom of Information Act request and responded to agents that "there is no way Thomas is getting those documents."

"I am disappointed here and even ashamed," Morgan said. "There appears heavy-handed bias where they disregard facts that are inconvenient to a preselected narrative."

After meeting with OSI, the report says the administration decided to expel Thomas weeks before graduation, but decided to waive almost $200,000 in fees usually associated with being expelled after four years.

"I think this was the fair thing to do," Lengyel told investigators.

He added his job was to "filter people who come into the Air Force" and Thomas lacked the qualities to make the cut.

The report concludes, "We found that he (Thomas) did interact with the OSI many, many times as a CI (confidential informant), and there is no question his OSI-related work did a tremendous amount of good in helping solve investigations and then bring those so deserving to justice. However, with the exception of a few instances, we did not find that Mr. Thomas' work with the OSI caused him to get demerits and hence get disenrolled."

Thomas has been waiting months for the report, hoping it would allow him to continue his Air Force career. In the meantime he has been volunteering at his church and with disabled children at a local school. He wants to be reinstated so he can graduate and serve as an officer, and said he was shocked by the findings.

"They say I failed my mission," he said. "As an Air Force cadet our core mission is the people - the people we serve and the people we serve with. We had problems with drugs and sexual assault at the academy. I saw an opportunity to help and I took it. They say I failed my mission because I didn't just focus on graduating. I don't think I failed. I think I went above and beyond. Education is part of the mission. But helping people, that is part of the mission, too."

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Follow Dave Philipps on Twitter:

@David_Philipps

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