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Honor, deception in secret air academy spy system

Dec. 2, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Facing pressure to combat drug use and sexual assault at the Air Force Academy, the Air Force has created a secret system of cadet informants to hunt for misconduct among students, The Gazette of Colorado Springs reports.
Facing pressure to combat drug use and sexual assault at the Air Force Academy, the Air Force has created a secret system of cadet informants to hunt for misconduct among students, The Gazette of Colorado Springs reports. (Air Force)
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Air Force Academy Chapel in the winter (Mike Kaplan / Air Force)
The Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel overlooks northern Colorado Springs and is visible from Interstate 25. It is the most-visited man-made landmark in Colorado. The nearby visitor center, open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. has exhibits on the history and heritage of the Academy and alumni. (Staff Sgt. Don Branum / Air Force)

AIR FORCE ACADEMY, COLO. — Facing pressure to combat drug use and sexual assault at the Air Force Academy, the Air Force has created a secret system of cadet informants to hunt for misconduct among students, The Gazette of Colorado Springs reports.

Cadets who attend the publicly funded academy must pledge never to lie. But the program pushes some to do just that: Informants are told to deceive classmates, professors and commanders while snapping photos, wearing recording devices and filing secret reports.

For one former academy student, becoming a covert government operative meant not only betraying the values he vowed to uphold, it meant being thrown out of the academy as punishment for doing the things the Air Force secretly told him to do.

Eric Thomas, 24, was a confidential informant for the Office of Special Investigations, or OSI — a law enforcement branch of the Air Force. OSI ordered Thomas to infiltrate academy cliques, wearing recorders, setting up drug buys, tailing suspected rapists and feeding information to OSI. In pursuit of cases, he was regularly directed by agents to break academy rules.

“It was exciting. And it was effective,” said Thomas, a soccer and football player who received no compensation for his informant work. “We got 15 convictions of drugs, two convictions of sexual assault. We were making a difference. It was motivating, especially with the sexual assaults. You could see the victims have a sense of peace.”

Through it all, he thought OSI would have his back. But when an operation went wrong, he said, his handlers cut communication and disavowed knowledge of his actions and watched as he was kicked out of the academy.

“It was like a spy movie,” said Thomas, who was expelled in April, a month before graduation. “I worked on dozens of cases, did a lot of good. And when it all hit the fan, they didn’t know me anymore.”

The Air Force’s top commander and key members of the academy’s civilian oversight board claim they have no knowledge of the OSI program, The Gazette reports.

Academy commanders declined multiple requests for interviews. OSI declined requests for comment, saying in a statement that it could neither confirm nor deny the existence of the program.

Gen. Mark Welsh, chief of staff of the Air Force, the service’s top officer and the only commander with authority over the academy and OSI, said he was unfamiliar with the cadet informant system.

“I don’t know a thing about it,” he said in October.

Members of the academy’s civilian oversight board, which includes members of Congress, also said they had not heard of the program.

The Gazette confirmed the program through interviews with multiple informants, phone and text records, former OSI agents, court filings and documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

Records show OSI uses FBI-style tactics to create informants. Agents interrogate cadets for hours without offering access to a lawyer, threaten them with prosecution, then coerce them into helping OSI in exchange for promises of leniency they don’t always keep. OSI then uses informants to infiltrate insular cadet groups, sometimes encouraging them to break rules to do so. When finished with informants, OSI takes steps to hide its existence, directing cadets to delete emails and messages, misleading Air Force commanders and Congress, and withholding documents it is required to release.

The program also appears to rely disproportionately on minority cadets such as Thomas.

“Their behavior in (Thomas’) case goes beyond merely disappointing and borders on despicable,” Skip Morgan, a former OSI lawyer who headed the law department at the academy, said in a letter to the superintendent of the academy in April. Morgan is now Thomas’ attorney. The superintendent did not reply.

The Air Force also has not replied to a letter sent by Thomas’ senator, John Thune of South Dakota, in September asking officials to meet with Thomas.

While the informant program has resulted in prosecutions, it also creates a fundamental rift between the culture of honesty and trust the academy drills into cadets and another one of duplicity and betrayal that the Air Force clandestinely deploys to root out misconduct.

The Gazette identified four informants. Three agreed to speak about their experience with OSI. Each had been told he was the only informant on campus but eventually learned of more, including one another. Because of the secretive nature of the program, The Gazette was unable to determine its scope, but the informants interviewed said they suspect the campus of 4,400 cadets has dozens.

“It’s contradictory to everything the academy is trying to do,” said one informant, Vianca Torres. “They say we are one big family and to trust each other, then they make you lie to everyone.”

Records show, for a time, Thomas was at the center of it. He worked major operations that netted high-profile prosecutions. OSI documents said he was “very reliable” and “provided OSI with ample amounts of vital information.”

The three informants who spoke to The Gazette said the system needs reform.

“I hate it,” said a third cadet who said he became an informant in 2011. The cadet, who graduated in May and is now an officer, did not want to be identified because he feared retribution by the Air Force. He said being an informant was the worst thing he has ever done. “It puts you in a horrible situation: lying, turning on other cadets. I felt like a rat. OSI says they will offer you protection, have your back. Then they don’t. Look what happened to Eric.”

Thomas said his life as an informant started after an off-campus cadet party in 2010.

The Air Force Academy is hardly known as a party school. Incoming cadets face a barrage of rules. Any slip-up earns a cadet punishment and demerits. A cadet who amasses 200 demerits gets expelled. Any illegal drug use is grounds for immediate dismissal. They pledge to an honor code: “We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.” Telling a lie can get a cadet expelled.

Even so, some cadets throw illegal parties off base, usually at houses rented for the weekend by a third party.

In fall 2010, Thomas, a sophomore, went to a house party near Divide. It was a typical college bash, he said, with pounding music, beer and cadets on the back porch smoking pot and synthetic marijuana.

The party was busted by civilian police. About two weeks later, the then-21-year-old said he was ordered to report to OSI for questioning.

The academy has about 12 agents, but cadets say few students know OSI exists.

An OSI agent named Mike Munson brought Thomas into a small interrogation room, Thomas said. The agent wanted to know who did what at the party. At first, Thomas gave vague answers, but Munson pressed harder, grilling the cadet for more than three hours: It was the cadet’s duty to tell the truth. Under the honor code, not turning in spice smokers was the same as smoking spice.

At the end of Thomas’ interrogation, Munson told him that the Air Force wanted him to become a confidential informant. Thomas asked whether it would mean breaking the honor code. He said Munson told him there was no cadet honor code in this line of work. Thomas agreed to help OSI.

Agents made him sign non-disclosure papers and told him he could be thrown in a military prison if he talked about his work. He could not even tell his commanders, they said. OSI would notify them instead.

Thomas worked his way in with the party kids, troublemakers and other cadets whom OSI called “targets.” He would call OSI to report his findings.

Informing took a toll. Thomas said he often would not get back from meetings until after midnight, leaving little time to do homework. His grades dropped, and he was put on academic probation. Because of the company he kept, he said he got a bad reputation.

Eventually Thomas, who had been informing on a cadet suspected of sexual assault, was punished for infractions including sneaking off base and having a female in the dorm, actions connected to the surveillance. Thomas said he assumed he would be protected by OSI. He wasn’t. Air Force records show the academy’s vice commandant knew of Thomas’ OSI involvement and ordered a special hearing officer to privately review the case. It never happened.

Thomas’ squadron commander recommended expulsion. Thomas was stripped of rank and restricted to base.

The discipline boards recommended that Thomas be expelled. OSI told him not to worry, he said. They were taking care of things behind the scenes. He just had to keep his mouth shut.

Thomas’ work with OSI didn’t stop when he got in trouble. It intensified. He was pivotal in a major bust that made headlines and led to the expulsion of one of the football team’s star players, he said.

At the end of August 2012, Thomas’ case went to a closed hearing, the final stop on the way to expulsion. His handler assured him he would speak on Thomas’ behalf. The agent never showed up. The board voted unanimously to expel Thomas.

Thomas texted and called OSI during the next few days, but agents stopped responding.

Files obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that OSI “terminated” Thomas on Sept. 10, 2012, because he “no longer had access to targets.”

Thomas moved back in with his family in South Dakota. He has appealed to the office of the secretary of the Air Force, Eric Fanning, saying he was wrongfully dismissed.

“It needs to change,” Thomas said. “I am not saying people shouldn’t work for OSI. We did a lot of good work. But they need protection. They need guidelines. Someone needs to be watching this. Otherwise, look what happens.”

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