The two-star general who last year was fired from running the Pentagon’s office that oversees some of the military’s most secret classified programs repeatedly and publicly berated and belittled her subordinates, the Air Force Office of Inspector General found.
Maj. Gen. Dawn Dunlop also once grabbed a subordinate’s hand without consent and scolded her over a “minor issue,” the IG’s investigator said in a January 2020 report, obtained by Air Force Times via the Freedom of Information Act.
Her disrespectful and belittling behavior — confirmed by about 85 percent of witnesses interviewed — continued even after several people tried to offer her feedback, the report said.
Dunlop was removed from her position as director of the Special Access Programs Control Office, or SAPCO, on May 31, 2019, by Ellen Lord, the Pentagon’s top acquisition official, amid reports that she had created a toxic work environment.
Dunlop now serves as the Air Force’s director of operational capability requirements.
Dunlop is a groundbreaking fighter pilot who was the first woman to become a fighter test pilot, fly an F-22, and command a test wing. She is one of the highest-ranking female fighter pilots in the Air Force.
But a few weeks after taking over the SAPCO office in August 2018, witnesses said Dunlop began treating subordinates there disrespectfully, according to the IG report. The belittling occurred on roughly a weekly, but sometimes daily, basis, the report said.
Dunlop commonly demeaned her subordinates when they failed to live up to her expectations, was unprofessionally insulting, and regularly implied they were stupid, said witnesses. Several of them used terms like “dictatorial” and “borderline abusive” to characterize her leadership style, and described her as treating subordinates like a “parent scolding a child.”
“That’s the environment we were in, nothing was ever right,” said one unidentified witness.
Witnesses also described Dunlop is an extraordinarily talented and accomplished officer who meant well and wanted the Air Force to succeed. She believed that SAPCO was a broken organization that she was meant to come in and fix.
But her leadership style caused several witnesses to say they lost respect for her and question how she had reached the level of major general.
In a statement provided to Air Force Times, Dunlop’s lawyer, Gary Myers, suggested that Dunlop’s efforts to reform SAPCO led to the IG complaint against her.
“Throughout her career, Maj. Gen. Dunlop has brought a clear sense of integrity, excellence and a strong desire to serve airmen and the nation,” Myers said. “She has always been willing to work with others to take on difficult change where needed to deliver results in support of these values.”
After she was assigned to lead SAPCO, “she endeavored to identify and undertake actions to better align the SAPCO enterprise with the Secretary of Defense priorities and SAP community needs,” Myers continued. “Her implementation of these efforts resulted in an inspector general complaint in May 2019. The IG allegations and report of investigation do not reflect who she is as a person, her values or her dedicated service of over 30 years.”
Myers said that Dunlop is grateful that the Air Force considered her response alongside the IG report when deciding to allow her to continue serving.
Dunlop “has gained invaluable insight and perspective from this experience, and by reading the feelings of others clearly expressed in the IG report,” Myers said.
The report lists several incidents where Dunlop publicly berated subordinates, including by calling someone’s work “crap” in the middle of a meeting and publicly denigrate the quality of people’s writing.
Her behavior crushed morale in SAPCO, the report said. Several people began having trouble at work, including “being afraid,” losing sleep, quitting or seriously considering quitting, and not wanting to speak up at staff meetings. Some people physically shook from fear when they had to deal with Dunlop, a witness said.
People also retreated from weekly meetings of a working group of top Special Access Programs officials to avoid provoking her ire.
Dunlop chaired the Senior SAP Working Group, which included directors of the other service’s SAPCOs. But one unidentified witness said that because of the way Dunlop acted at the meetings, members began to speak up less for fear of provoking an encounter with her. The witness called Dunlop a “prize fighter” who relished “be[ing] in the middle of the ring and … slug[ging] it out.”
Other members began sending their deputies or stopped coming entirely.
Several witnesses said they tried to talk to Dunlop about the way she was acting in meetings and the climate in the SAPCO office, but found her unreceptive to the feedback. She didn’t change her behavior, they said.
Dunlop’s confrontational leadership style reached a boiling point on Jan. 4, 2019, when she grabbed a shocked subordinate’s hand without her permission to get her attention during a dispute over her calendar and a visitor coming in for coffee.
The subordinate told investigators that Dunlop “just went ballistic” when she found out a visitor, with whom Dunlop had a coffee appointment, was first going to stop by her office. Dunlop scolded the subordinate for not telling her the visitor was coming up and said she was concerned the visitor would see bare walls in her office and askew coat hangars and papers on her desk.
The subordinate told investigators she looked at Dunlop’s schedule to bring a change to her attention and Dunlop grabbed her hand and shook it “like a child to get my attention.” The altercation was witnessed by multiple people, who told investigators that Dunlop raised her voice and told the subordinate, “Look at me, look at me please.”
The subordinate said that while she was shocked, Dunlop did not grab her hand hard. And witnesses said Dunlop did not appear to intend to harm or scare the subordinate, though they were surprised. One SAPCO employee called the Pentagon Force Protection Agency to report the incident the following week.
Dunlop told investigators that she was caught off-guard that the visit was about to happen, and when the subordinate continued looking at the calendar, she appeared “lost in thought.” Dunlop denied she shook the subordinate’s hand, and said she touched it for five seconds at most. She denied she was angry and described it as a “very brief,” “light touch,” that she did not think was disrespectful.
Several witnesses said it was “completely inappropriate” and “unbecoming” for a general officer like Dunlop to put a hand on a subordinate like that.
“If it were a male general, he might be done that day … if he had grabbed a 115 pound lady like that,” one witness said.
The IG concluded Dunlop’s confrontation with her subordinate, over a minor issue, “compromised her standing as an officer,” and caused her subordinate to recoil in shock. Her behavior was indecorous and in violation of rules barring conduct unbecoming an officer.
The IG’s investigator contacted the Office of Special Investigations over this incident to see if a criminal investigation into potential assault was warranted, but OSI decided not to pursue the matter.
In May 2019, Dunlop provoked another senior officer to storm out of a meeting in tears. Dunlop was irritated because three Air Force officers had showed up to a meeting to prepare slides to brief senior military leaders, but Dunlop only thought one Air Force briefer was necessary.
Dunlop kept prodding one unnamed senior officer repeatedly and to an uncomfortable degree, even though she was told to let the matter drop. The senior officer teared up in anger and told Dunlop that they were peers, and Dunlop was not to speak to her again like that, the report said.
But Dunlop continued pushing the issue in a “mocking” fashion, as one witness described it, until the senior officer got up and stormed out.
Witnesses said it was a particularly awkward, because majors were in the room and were getting the impression that this was acceptable conduct from a general officer.
In a separate IG report, dated November 2019, Said substantiated an allegation that Dunlop improperly had her subordinates perform personal services for her while serving as the commander of the NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force at Geilenkirchen NATO Air Base in Germany from 2016 to 2018.
Subordinates helped Dunlop by swapping out the summer tires for winter tires, and vice versa, on her personal vehicle four or five times, as well as getting an oil change done and making personal lodging arrangements. When Dunlop was transferring back to the United States in August 2018, a subordinate helped Dunlop get her car shipped back by driving it around until it had burned off enough fuel to qualify for shipping, and also sold her winter tires for her.
Dunlop told investigators she didn’t consider offering to pay the subordinate for her work advertising and selling the winter tires after duty hours, because the tires were a unique requirement of being stationed at Geilenkirchen
The IG report concluded that having subordinates do these personal tasks for her were violations of Defense Department ethics regulations and part of a “pattern of personnel misuse” during her command in Germany.
In his statement, Myers said that Dunlop regrets accepting those services from her subordinates, and said they were unintentional violations. The need to swap out, and then sell, winter tires were “requirements unique to that environment,” Myers said.
“She is committed to incorporating these lessons learned as she moves forward in her current position,” Myers said.
Stephen Losey covers leadership and personnel issues as the senior reporter for Air Force Times. He comes from an Air Force family, and his investigative reports have won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover Air Force operations against the Islamic State.