U.S. Air Force Academy basic cadet trainees march out to theJacks Valley training area July 22 to start the field portion oft training in Colorado Springs, Colo. Members of Congress are sharply criticizing a recently revealed program to recruit cadets to serve as informants on other cadets suspected of drug use and sexual assault. (Ray McCoy / Air Force)
WASHINGTON — Members of Congress are sharply criticizing a recently revealed program to recruit U.S. Air Force Academy cadets to serve as informants on other cadets suspected of drug use and sexual assault.
“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,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Republican who represents the Colorado Springs congressional district where the academy is located.
“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,” said Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass. “This raises to me a lot of questions that are very hard for you to explain.”
Lamborn and Tsongas serve on the Air Force Academy’s Board of Visitors, a 15-member oversight board that held a special meeting Tuesday on Capitol Hill in response to the controversy. The informant program was first reported by the Colorado Springs Gazette on Dec. 1.
The Gazette highlighted the case of Cadet Eric Thomas, who said he was recruited by the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations after being suspected of attending an off-campus party at which drugs were used. Thomas agreed to serve as an informant on fellow cadets, but told the paper he became increasingly uncomfortable that he was being asked to disobey academy rules in order to get closer to his targets.
When Thomas was brought up on disciplinary charges, the OSI agents disavowed the operation and Thomas was expelled, the Gazette reported.
Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, the academy’s superintendent, and Brig. Gen. Gregory Lengyel, disputed that version of events Tuesday. They said Thomas already had enough demerits to be expelled before he was recruited, and that his expulsion was for disciplinary and academic reasons unrelated to his work as an informant.
Academy commanders also defended the informant program, saying it was used rarely and was always subject to the oversight of the academy’s top brass. While Johnson said she couldn’t imagine a situation where she would approve the use of an informant in the future, she said she couldn’t rule it out as a tool to investigate serious offenses. And she noted that the legalization of marijuana in Colorado could pose a challenge for the academy, where any drug use on or off campus is still a violation of Defense Department regulations.
Johnson said the Air Force is investigating whether Thomas’s OSI handlers acted appropriately, and a report is expected by the end of the month. She conceded that the affair had given the academy was a black eye, but said the Air Force was constrained by privacy laws from defending its actions more vociferously.
“We’ve revealed a lot here that the general counsel is not going to be comfortable with,” Johnson said. “If you want to go point counterpoint, it has to be in a public forum. I agree with a free press, but it’s not always a 100% accurate press.”