Friday Bag o’ Spying & Sex

big brother bagTotal Information Awareness. ADVISE (Analysis, Dissemination, Visualization, Insight and Semantic Enhancement). The massive expansion of federal and civilian contractor counter-terrorism and intelligence analysis organizations. This week’s news about NSA telephone monitoring. PRISM.

None of this should surprise you … assuming, that is, you’ve been paying attention. You thought something like it might happen in the wake of 9/11. You knew it for sure a few weeks later when the bed-wetters in congress passed the Patriot Act and created the Department of Homeland Security. You’ve known for years the DHS and NSA are monitoring your phone calls, emails, and internet surfing habits. Your reaction to this week’s exposés was probably something on the order of “Well, duh!”

Educated citizens have known about government domestic spying for years … and have done nothing. Our senators and congressmen clearly knew about it all along … and we re-elected them. So forgive me for being cynical, but I don’t think this week’s news is going to change a thing. I think we’ve all accepted in our hearts the notion that when we tap into the public electronic network … by landline or cell phone, by using credit and debit cards, by sending email, by paying bills online, by surfing the net and downloading or uploading files … we have no expectation of privacy. You want privacy, you need to drop off the grid. And good luck with that!

I bet my dossier is pretty fat by now. Yours too. Ah, well, if we have nothing to hide, we have nothing to fear. Isn’t that what they always say?

Change of subject:

I wanted to say something smart about sexual assault in the military; specifically about the idea of cutting the chain of command out of the sex crime investigation and prosecution loop by setting up an independent agency of some kind. But the more I think about it, the more complex the issue gets, the muddier the answers become.

During my flying career I investigated three F-15 crashes. Later on I was chief of flight safety for Pacific Air Forces and oversaw the investigations of several crashes involving all sorts of aircraft. I knew a lot of senior officers and civilians at the USAF Safety Center and was aware of a growing belief within that organization that the USAF ought to set up a separate organization, free of political influence, to investigate mishaps. That never happened, but there are still many who think it should.

How does this relate to sexual assault in the military? As with sexual assault, aircraft mishaps are investigated within the chain of command, at least in the USAF (I can’t speak for the other services, but believe it’s the same throughout the military). There are ten major commands in the USAF (Air Combat Command, US Air Forces in Europe, Pacific Air Forces, etc). Each MAJCOM is headed by a four-star general. When someone crashes a jet in PACAF, the PACAF four-star convenes a mishap investigation board. Board members come from that general’s command … they ultimately work for, and are answerable to, him and him alone.

When the mishap investigation is done, the board briefs the general. If he buys their conclusions, findings, and recommendations, all is well. If he doesn’t, however, he can do pretty much whatever he wants. He might direct the current board to throw out their conclusions and launch a new investigation. He might disband the board and appoint a new one. He might redline the career of a board member who refused to go along. No one wants to get on the wrong side of a four-star general who can make or break one’s career. The four-star’s decisions are final … there is no higher review process, no court of appeal.

Normally the mishap investigation process is aboveboard and honest. It’s not a prosecution or a court-martial. It’s supposed to be a dispassionate and non-punitive investigation into what happened, out of which will come recommendations to prevent similar mishaps from happening in the future. Sometimes an investigation exposes dirty laundry senior leaders would just as soon not see the light of day, but in the spirit of honesty and a sincere desire to fix systemic problems, four-stars generally accept mishap board findings and recommendations.

Except sometimes they don’t. Every USAF pilot is aware of a few notorious mishap investigations that went political and resulted in dishonest reports that covered up egregious failures by high-level commanders and decision-makers. Every USAF pilot knows of mishap board members whose careers stalled out after a run-in with the boss. It’s fortunately rare but it does happen.

What the dissidents at the USAF Safety Center proposed, back in the late 1980s and early 1990s … and are probably still agitating for today … was to turn aircraft mishap investigations over to a disinterested, independent body not under any of the four-star MAJCOM commanders. Their findings and recommendations would be final, not subject to revision or rejection by commanders with vested interests in the outcome.

This is more or less what the tide of media and public opinion favors with regard to sexual assault in the military today. Set up an independent body to investigate and prosecute sexual crimes, with court-martial punishments that cannot be overruled by a commander who simply doesn’t believe one of his golden-haired boys could possibly have done such a thing (or who doesn’t really believe sexual assault is a crime to begin with).

The big difference is that sexual assault investigations are also criminal prosecutions, where mishap investigations aren’t. I’ll come back to that point in a moment.

With regard to mishaps, how would an independent investigative body work? If it is to be manned by military personnel who understand the equipment and mission of the mishap unit, at some point those investigators would rotate back into regular commands where senior officers with long memories might take revenge on them. If it is to be manned by military personnel at or near the end of their careers, people who will be told beforehand they’ll be retiring after their term and thus not have to worry about retaliation, how would you screen for disgruntled passovers who might want to take their own revenge on the military? In either case you’d probably have a hard time finding anyone who’d want to serve on any such independent investigative body. An alternative is civilian manning, but then where’s your expertise and insight? Here’s another thing: what would members of an independent body do between investigations? The USAF might go a year or two without experiencing a single aircraft mishap, then have six inside the space of two months. You can’t justify manning levels sufficient to investigate six mishaps at once … until you have six mishaps at once.

When it comes to sexual assault, there are important differences. One, as mentioned, sexual assault is a crime, and any investigation is also part of a legal prosecution. Two, you wouldn’t need specialized personnel who understand the mission performed by the accused or victim: sexual assault is sexual assault, whether it happens on a college campus or a forward operating base in Afghanistan. Three, your independent body could well be made up of JAGs, OSI agents, and civilians … in fact, you’d probably find JAGs, OSI agents, and civilians who’d want to make sex crimes investigation and prosecution a career. Four, there probably wouldn’t be any down time between investigations and prosecutions, since sexual assault seems to recur on a regular basis.

It seems to me that while an independent investigative body wouldn’t significantly improve the mishap investigation process, it might actually work well for sexual assault investigations and prosecutions. But whether or not it would work isn’t the only issue. If we’re going to take sex crime prosecutions away from commanders, what else might we take away? Mishap investigations, for sure. Come to think of it, why should commanders be allowed to investigate or prosecute anything that takes place in their organizations, since they obviously have a stake in the outcome?

Then there’s this: four-star generals have always been in charge of investigating mishaps and crimes within their own commands. They’ve always had the last word when it comes to recommendations, organizational changes, and punishment. Not one of them is willing to give that power up, and from their point of view rightly so.

My opinion? It ain’t gonna happen.

But that doesn’t mean things can’t change.

Truth be told, right now I’m a little ashamed of my Air Force and the military in general. I always brag about how we led the way with racial integration. Oh, sure, President Truman forced it on us, and there was much institutional resistance at first, but when I was a military brat in the 1950s I was part of an integrated society, decades before the rest of the nation caught up. Maybe Truman didn’t change our hearts and minds, but he damn sure changed our behavior.

If we could achieve racial integration, one of the most profound things any organization in any society has ever done, why can’t we get a handle on integrating men and women? Sexual assault has always been a problem in the military, and it doesn’t look like anyone is facing up to it.

These four-star commanders, for all their power, do have a boss. They serve at the pleasure of the commander-in-chief. President Obama could do more than he has done so far to let those four-stars know that sexual assault in the military will not be tolerated.

If I were president, I know right where I’d start. Last November an Air Force lieutenant colonel stationed at Aviano Air Base in Italy was convicted by court-martial of sexual assault. He was sentenced to a year in military prison followed by termination of service and forfeiture of pay and retirement. In March of this year a three-star general in his chain of command overturned the conviction and punishment based on his opinion that the lieutenant colonel was a good father and husband who would never do such a thing. Above that three-star general was the four-star general commanding US Air Forces in Europe, who did nothing. I’d fire that four-star right now and make sure his replacement had immediate plans to terminate both the three-star and the lieutenant colonel. It would take only one or two actions like that to show military leaders that President Obama is as serious about sexual integration as President Truman was about racial integration.

Hey, there’d be another benefit, too: I’d have reason to brag about the Air Force again. I’d like that, I really would.

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