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Academy controversy exposes OSI's army of snitches

Dec. 9, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Former cadet Eric Thomas claims he was expelled because of his work as an OSI informant.
Former cadet Eric Thomas claims he was expelled because of his work as an OSI informant. (Courtesy of Eric Thomas)
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A former Air Force Academy cadet who claims he was ordered to break cadet policy while working as a confidential informant and then was abandoned when he got into trouble has exposed the service’s long-standing practice of using airmen to root out crime in the ranks.

The Air Force says informants play an integral crime-fighting role by ferreting out everything from theft and contract fraud to drug distribution and sexual assault. But critics of the practice — including at least one former agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations — say informants can be pawns for overzealous investigators who have no interest in protecting the careers or futures of their sources.

A Dec. 2 story in the Colorado Springs (Colo.) Gazette about former academy cadet Eric Thomas blew the lid off of the Air Force informant program. Thomas claims he was recruited as a sophomore to spy on fellow cadets for OSI and then expelled six weeks before graduation for demerits he was given for activities related to conducting investigations.

The Air Force has pushed back hard at the notion that Thomas was used by the agency and then cut loose when he was no longer of any value to investigators. But three days after the story appeared, the academy announced that superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson will now exercise oversight of all operations involving informants.

“Historically the CI [confidential informant] program has rarely been used at USAFA, and when employed it is deliberate, judicious and limited to felony activity; there are no ongoing operations [within the cadet wing],” Johnson wrote in a recent email to academy graduates.

OSI will still have “command and control” over the program, academy spokesman John Van Winkle said in a Dec. 5 email to Air Force Times.

Law enforcement agencies across the country use confidential informants to help combat crime.

An informant program has existed in some incarnation in OSI since the agency was established in 1948 to protect the integrity of the Air Force, said OSI vice commander Col. Humberto Morales.

“Just like any agency, we try to take a proactive approach when possible,” he said. “One way to penetrate these difficult groups is with a human being. Human beings are the ones who have access.”

But Eugene Fidell, who teaches military law at Yale University, said the Thomas case shows the potential for problems when recruiting cadets and midshipmen as informants at military academies.

“The dangers of unfairness are magnified dramatically because of the unusual structure of the service academies, which are built around being forthcoming and never telling a fib and all of that. I think it’s a prescription for the creation of problems,” Fidell said. “Beyond that, the fact is we’re dealing with a volatile mix of college students at a fun-loving time of life attempting to navigate through a very un-fun-loving professional environment. That kind of interaction is not going to be trouble-free. Anyone who thinks it’s not going to be trouble-free is fooling themselves.”

Two stories

Thomas told the Gazette he was recruited as a confidential informant after being questioned by an OSI agent about attending a party at which cadets used synthetic marijuana. He signed a nondisclosure agreement and was told to go to parties and befriend troublemakers. He said his chain of command was unaware of his role with OSI, so he developed a bad reputation by hanging out with the wrong people.

Things came to a head when he was told to track a cadet who had been accused of sexual assault, he told the paper. After attending a party with the cadet, the two got into a fight when Thomas moved to protect a woman he believed the cadet was trying to sexually assault after she had passed out.

Thomas claimed OSI did nothing when an officer discipline board recommended his expulsion from the academy. Rather, he told the newspaper, his handler told him to keep going to parties even though he was restricted to base. And OSI kept quiet about why Thomas was breaking the rules, he said. Eventually, Thomas was kicked out of the academy.

The academy issued a statement after the story ran questioning Thomas’ reliability. Thomas had racked up more than enough demerits to be expelled before he started working for OSI as an informant, according to the Dec. 3 statement.

“At the time Mr. Thomas was approved by AFOSI to assist as a confidential informant in December 2011, he was told that he was not allowed to violate the law, Air Force or DOD policies, or Academy rules,” the statement says. “Mr. Thomas acknowledged these instructions in writing,” the academy stated. “At no time did AFOSI agents ask then-Cadet Thomas to violate this agreement. Nevertheless, Thomas continued to break Academy rules while on probation and while working with the OSI.”

But Thomas says that’s not the whole story. His attorney explained that his client became a source for OSI in the fall of 2010. During that time and after he was officially recruited as a confidential informant in 2011, he received demerits, some of which were related to his activities helping investigators.

“I did not have an outstanding number of demerits and fear of being disenrolled in 2010,” Thomas said in a Dec. 5 interview with Air Force Times. “I did not. I was approached, and the incentive was to do the right thing. They knew that I was a man of character — they said that. They said I was a man of honor — they said that. And they said, ‘What would a man of character and a man of honor do if he had the opportunity to help out OSI battle sexual assault and drugs and federal crimes?’ And it’s an easy answer.”

A friend and fellow cadet said she had been sexually assaulted in 2010, Thomas said. The woman did not make an unrestricted report, which would have launched an investigation, he said. Eventually, she left the academy. The alleged assailant was never disciplined, Thomas said.

“I knew that if I ever had a chance to prevent that happening to anyone else, to prevent their lives from forever being changed, I would do anything I could to help them,” he said.

Thomas also acknowledges he was told not to lie, cheat or steal, but he did have to violate cadet policy as part of the job. For example, he would have to meet his handler when he was not supposed to leave base.

“When I left base, I signed out; so essentially, in signing out, I was following cadet procedure and letting the academy know that I am leaving base just as we’re told to do,” he said. “The reason for that is OSI told me that someone in my chain of command, they were fully aware of my doings as a CI [confidential informant].”

The academy said in its statement that OSI personnel met academy officials to disclose Thomas’ role in OSI investigations.

But Skip Morgan, Thomas’ attorney and a former OSI staff judge advocate, said his client’s chain of command was not aware of Thomas’ activities while he was helping in the investigations.

Moreover, the commandant of cadets, who knew of Thomas’ work as an informant, and the local OSI detachment commander both moved to new assignments just before the review committee expelled Thomas, said Morgan.

“The handling agent was prepared to go in and help him out [at the review committee] and to tell them what he had been doing for OSI and was told by his commander, ‘Don’t go,’” Morgan said.

OSI also frustrated Thomas’ attempts to convince academy officials that he had been serving as an informant, the attorney said.

“One of the things that I think is very important here when we’re deciding who’s being forthcoming and who’s not is the fact that [Thomas] sent two — count ’em, two — FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] privacy act requests for his OSI records and was told — and therefore his chain of command was told — twice: there are no such records,” Morgan said. “It wasn’t until he got his congressman involved that finally those records were disclosed that showed yes, indeed, he was a confidential informant and yes, indeed, he did a lot of work for them.”

OSI 'focused on threat'

Morales insists that OSI does not prey on innocent airmen for its confidential informant program. But a retired OSI investigator says agents often recruit low-ranking airmen for the role because they have less power than those with more rank when they find themselves in trouble.

Informants aren’t plucked off the street to infiltrate groups they aren’t already a part of, Morales said. Nor are informants spying on airmen who are staying out of trouble.

“I want to emphasize it’s a very small percentage that might find themselves in a bad situation. Ninety-nine percent of the folks are doing great things, are going to be great future leaders,” he said.

“Day to day, we’re not sitting there looking at everybody and what they are doing in their normal lives and activities. We are focused on the threat to the Air Force. A lot of focus is on terrorism and espionage and counterintelligence. It may be an insider threat like we saw at the Navy Yard or Fort Hood [Texas]. Those are the threats that keep commanders up at night,” Morales said.

OSI usually recruits as informants cadets and airmen who have gotten into trouble. That also means the airman or cadet is already assigned an area defense counsel to help protect his or her interests.

“The person is already working for a life line,”Morales said. “They’ve already dug that hole.”

For example, an airman who has failed a drug test may agree to help root out a narcotics distributor to minimize the impact to his or her own career, he said.

“Someone may have been facing a court-martial and [as an informant] they’ll get an Article 15 and a discharge when otherwise it would have been a felony-level conviction,” Morales said.

Thomas did not have to repay $180,000 in tuition after he was expelled from the academy.

His work as an informant “may have been a key contributing factor to why he didn’t pay back his tuition. I think he made out pretty good,” Morales said.

Morales declined to provide the number of confidential informants inside the Air Force for security reasons. Some installations may not have any, he said, while an overseas base where black marketing and prostitution is rampant outside the installation could have multiple informants.

“The Air Force Academy is a military training environment,” he said. “We’re training future leaders of the Air Force. As a result of a reactive investigation, we may discover there seems to be a narcotics distribution group. In that case, we will develop an informant.”

Once the problem is addressed, Morales said, there may no longer be a need for an informant.

Morales said informants sign formal and specific agreements that recognize agents aren’t in a position to affect their careers. Once an airman becomes an informant, he said, the commander is notified.

The commander then uses that information to decide how to handle an informant’s own misdoings.

Agents receive extensive training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center on the use of confidential informants, Morales said.

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