Updated: January 17, 2014 at 5:00 pm
Members of Congress this week criticized the use of secret Air Force Academy cadet informants, saying it was a contradiction to the academy's strict honesty oath and questioning the program's place at an academic institution.
"I'd just like to go on the record as saying I don't see how being an informant is compatible with living out the honor code," U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, said in the meeting.
Rep. Niki Tsongas, a Democrat from Massachusetts, also said, "I think we need to take a hard look about whether this is appropriate for an academic institution, because after all, you are an academic institution. This raises to me a lot of questions that are very hard for you to explain."
The comments, reported by USA Today, were made in a meeting Tuesday in Washington, D.C., of the academy's Board of Visitors, a 15-member civilian advisory group. The board, made up largely of members of Congress and retired Air Force brass, is charged with monitoring the institution and making recommendations.
The meeting's agenda included a discussion of an investigation that ran in The Gazette in December that revealed how the Air Force's Office of Special Investigations recruited cadets to covertly track misconduct while misleading their peers, professors and commanders about their actions.
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 the program resulted in several convictions but that student informants have sometimes been encouraged to break academy rules by their OSI handlers, then disavowed when they got in trouble.
The focus of The Gazette report was a cadet named Eric Thomas, who worked on dozens of cases, including high-profile sexual assaults, and was later expelled for misconduct that he says was directed by OSI.
On Thursday, Lamborn described the meeting as "very intense."
"There was a lot of disagreement on the program," among the board, he told The Gazette. "Some felt the Air Force needed it to go after crime. I feel like there are better ways to do it. I just don't see how asking someone to misrepresent who they are is compatible with the honor code."
The academy's honor code requires cadets to pledge "We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does."
At the meeting, Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, the academy's superintendent, and Brig. Gen. Gregory Lengyel said Thomas, the cadet at the center of the debate, already had enough demerits to be expelled before he was recruited to be an informant, according to USA Today. They also told the board that his expulsion was for disciplinary and academic reasons unrelated to his work as an informant, and they told the board that the Air Force was constrained by privacy laws from defending its actions more vociferously.
Text messages published by The Gazette in December contradict this, showing Thomas was encouraged by OSI to sneak off base to attempt to buy drugs from a dealer supplying cadets. He was later punished for doing so.
Academy commanders also defended the informant program in the meeting, saying it was used rarely and was always subject to the oversight by the academy's top brass. Gazette reporting also suggests this may not have been the case. It found that OSI agents were in some cases told by their commanders not to fully reveal details of cadet involvement in the program, and top brass may not have been aware of its scope.
On Friday, the academy issued this statement from Johnson: "The Board of Visitors' perspective is very important to us. The dialogue and feedback is critical as we strengthen our culture of commitment and climate of respect in the cadet wing. With the proper culture and climate, use of the OSI confidential informant program becomes unnecessary."
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., who also serves on the board, characterized the meeting as productive and said Thursday that he is encouraged by Johnson's announcement that she will exercise direct oversight of the informant program.
The Air Force Inspector General is investigating the program and Thomas' expulsion. Johnson has said she expects a report by the end of January. Lamborn said the board was told the report may not be ready until February.
Lamborn said there seemed to be confusion at the academy over control of the informant program.
"Can OSI tell the academy what to do? Can the academy tell OSI what to do? These are questions I think they are struggling with, and questions I have as well," he said.
He said the board would wait for the investigation findings before giving its recommendation on the program.
"We can make our opinion very strongly known," he said. "But we want to have the facts first."
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