Updated: December 16, 2013 at 4:45 am
The Air Force Academy says the use of cadet informants is “deliberate, judicious and limited to felony activity” — a statement the school made after a Dec. 1 investigation by The Gazette showed that the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigation used students to ferret out misbehavior.
But Adam DeRito, a former cadet informant, says the program casts a broad net, looking for misconduct that could be used in prosecutions or as leverage to get more information.
“It wasn’t targeted at all. It was 24/7, looking for anything, everything, whoever, even just rumors. They loved rumors,” said DeRito, who said he worked as an informant in 2009 and 2010 and was expelled from the academy in 2010 in part for conduct he said was related to his OSI work. He now lives near Brighton.
OSI had him troll for cadets on sex chat websites, posing as a female, and had him set up a fitness program to gain information from students, he said.
DeRito contacted The Gazette after the Dec. 1 story, which revealed that informants were encouraged to deceive commanders, teachers and their peers as they pursued misconduct among other cadets. Some wore wires and used hidden cameras.
Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson on Friday said that she was unfamiliar with DeRito’s case but thought it could be addressed in an Inspector General’s investigation that will examine OSI’s handling of the case of another former cadet, Eric Thomas, who was featured in the story. She announced the investigation last week.
“I don’t know everything that’s happened in the past,” Johnson said. “That’s where I put hope in that OSI inquiry.”
Johnson said the results of that investigation will be made public when the report is completed, possibly in January.
After revelations of the program caused an uproar among academy graduates, Johnson said there are no ongoing operations involving cadet informants, and she has vowed repeatedly to exercise oversight of operations involving cadet confidential informants.
DeRito said his OSI handling agents asked for expansive information on misconduct among cadets with no specific targets in mind.
Sworn statements by one OSI handler, Michael Munson, at an Air Force disciplinary hearing in 2010 confirm that the cadet “worked extensively with OSI” and “helped in numerous investigations concerning cadets.”
Munson could not be reached for comment.
DeRito said he became involved with OSI as a junior in the spring of 2009 after he was caught sending sexually explicit emails and photos of himself to a civilian woman he met online. OSI agents called him to an interrogation room with a mirrored glass window and told him the “woman” he had been emailing was actually a 13-year-old girl, according to Air Force documents.
After four hours of interrogation, DeRito said, Munson persuaded him to work for OSI. In exchange for his cooperation, he said, they told him they would make sure no one found out about the emails.
For about six months, he said, OSI had him make posts in the adult dating section of Craigslist.org , posing as a civilian woman in Colorado Springs and encouraging male cadets to exchange sexually explicit emails and naked photos of themselves with him. When they did, he said, he gave the information to OSI.
He said he turned in five cadets. OSI never told him what happened to them.
He also thinks he turned in other cadets who later became informants.
“I feel so bad about what I did,” he said. “Do I think people should do drugs and commit rape? No. But do I think we should all be throwing each other under the bus? My god, it’s awful.”
DeRito said his handling agent also wanted to monitor general misconduct among students at the Air Force’s preparatory school, a government-run, one-year program that prepares students who would not otherwise qualify for the academy. DeRito said OSI encouraged him to create an early morning physical fitness group at the prep school so he could gather information from participants.
In August 2009, DeRito started training about 25 students at 4:30 a.m. twice a week.
“Munson said ‘keep your ears open, the littlest conversation may be the biggest break,’ ” he said.
He funneled information about drug use, underage drinking, inappropriate sexual relationships and off-campus parties to OSI. Munson told him to specifically watch a student who was rumored to be buying alcohol for the others.
“I became good friends with the preppies. They trusted me. They would confide in me,” he said.
A recently retired OSI special agent said use of confidential sources is deeply ingrained in the operations of OSI. Capt. Christopher Nelson, who worked with OSI from 2002 until early 2013, said every agent is required to recruit and use a confidential source as part of probationary training. “From there on it is pushed to have as many sources as you can muster,” he said. “It is stressed heavily.”
Nelson did not work at the academy but said he was familiar with OSI operations there.
Agents sometimes used confidential sources to get information when legal restrictions prevent agents from using a warrant or wire tap, Nelson said.
DeRito said his academy commanders knew next to nothing about his involvement with OSI. He passed communications to OSI through email accounts that he and the agents could log into to circumvent academy controls. When he needed to meet with agents, he said, he pretended to go jogging and ran to their offices. “The mirrored interrogation room … it was like a second home to me,” he said. “I hate that place.”
The cadet went from OSI informant to OSI suspect in February 2010 when he was accused of breaking Air Force rules by having sex with a female prep school student that he was informing on, a crime known as fraternization.
DeRito denies the allegation.
OSI took him to an interrogation room where he was questioned for about 10 hours. He said he was never advised of his right to a lawyer.
If the pressure is intense enough, Nelson said, it can cause people to give OSI wrong information or false confessions.
For hours, agents pressed De-Rito to admit to the fraternization, DeRito said. Eventually, he said, about 3 a.m., agents wrote a statement saying he was guilty. He said they told him he would not get in trouble if he signed it, so he did.
They immediately charged him with the crime, he said, then advised him to get a lawyer.
Although OSI had told DeRito that his crime from a year before would never be made public if he helped them, the academy brought it out and he was punished, he said.
DeRito, by then a senior, completed all his classwork while his case was pending but did not get a diploma. He was expelled from the academy in June 2010, a month after graduation.
As part of his punishment, he was required to repay $169,000 in government tuition costs within a year.
When he was unable to pay, the Air Force turned his bill over to a collection agency that charges interest. He said he now owes more than $200,000.
“None of this would have happened if I hadn’t worked with OSI,” he said.
“At first I thought doing it was a good thing because it is getting rid of people who don’t belong in the Air Force. Now I look at it and see that it’s a complete destruction of integrity among the cadets. It is not creating a cohesive unit, it is destroying friendship, trust and camaraderie — the things that are important to making effective leaders.”
HAVE PLAYED KEY ROLES
Confidential student informants were crucial to a major drug bust at the Air Force Academy in 1989, a former Office of Special Investigation agent told The Gazette.
Informants continue to be important today, said retired Master Sgt. James Tilley, who was an OSI agent at the academy from 1988 to 1990.
Tilley, now an investigator for the Department of Justice, contacted The Gazette after its investigation of OSI was published Dec. 1. He said confidential informants were used in Operation Herbicide in 1989.
“It was the largest operation to that date netting over 40 subjects involving civilians, active duty enlisted and some cadets who became commissioned officers,” Tilley wrote in an email.
Working on tips, OSI agents used cadet informants to penetrate insular student groups. Tilley said it was common for tipsters to come forward for moral reasons.
“Some sources are trying to help a situation they’re in,” he said later in an interview. “Other sources, their motivation is they want to see bad things fixed.”
Tilley also wrote in the email that the use of informants “is nothing new, and almost all drug cases are made by confidential informants by all law enforcement agencies. I also investigated sexual assaults there, and there was tens of thousands of dollars in theft from the cadet wing, and I can tell you it wasn’t the janitors.”