Air Force Academy superintendent sees opportunities in recent challenges

Cadets stand in formation at the Air Force Academy in Colorado.

Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson would rather talk about the positive trends and outstanding students at the Air Force Academy.

She would rather discuss how she wants the academy to become more of a partner to the community and be more open to Colorado Springs residents. She would rather refer to the academy as a college that’s ranked highly nationally and has one of the best engineering programs in the country.

However, during an Editorial Board meeting Friday at The Gazette, the academy’s new superintendent instead took on another program that has engulfed the campus and its graduates since a Gazette investigative series unveiled it Dec. 1.

Johnson announced the actions just over a week after a Dec. 1 Gazette investigation showed that the Air Force employs a system of secret cadet informants at the academy to search out misconduct.

The Gazette report showed how some cadet informants are then expelled for misconduct they incurred while working as informants and that the Air Force's Office of Special Investigations, which runs the informant program.

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.

OSI’s covert activities, as reported in The Gazette, occurred before Johnson became superintendent and, because it was an Air Force program, seemingly was out of her control. But, during the board meeting, Johnson asserted that she has taken control.

Johnson told The Gazette in an exclusive interview that OSI now “recognizes I have the inherent right of command over what happens to my cadets.”

That means, as a commander, she can forbid the use of cadet informants entirely. Johnson has said cadet informants now are not active on campus and that she will oversee future use of the program. OSI is an independent law enforcement unit of the Air Force that operates at its installations, including the academy.    Johnson also has directed investigations into the academy’s disenrollment practices and the use of informants. She vowed the results of both will be made public, perhaps as early as January.

Johnson has held high-level discussions with OSI commanders in Washington since the Gazette investigation found the agency was using student informants to gather intelligence on cadet misconduct and criminal activity. The Gazette detailed how cadet informants have sometimes been enticed by the OSI to break academy rules, then disavowed them when they were disciplined for breaking the rules.

The investigation also found that the informant program conflicted with the school’s honor code, which forbids lying, cheating, stealing and tolerating those who break the code.

However, Johnson told the Editorial Board, “There are traditional law enforcement techniques we can use without endangering the honor code.” She added that the use of cadet informants should be a “last resort.”

The Gazette’s investigation centered on former cadet Eric Thomas, an informant who helped OSI with dozens of criminal cases, including two sexual assault convictions. He was expelled from the academy this year, six weeks before graduation, for misconduct he said was related to his informant work.

Johnson said Thomas’ case could be investigated, at his request, by the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records, the service’s highest level of administrative review. If Thomas’ application for readmission to the academy was approved by that board, he would be able to finish as a cadet and earn lieutenant’s bars.

“If he’s readmitted, he’s readmitted,” Johnson said.

Reached at his home in South Dakota, Thomas said he has not requested such an investigation because he’s concerned about the length of time it could take for the board to reach a decision. He said he was told by his attorney that some cases take months or years to be resolved and added that the Air Force secretary or Johnson could clear his return to the cadet wing.

More than 5,400 people have signed an online petition calling for Thomas’ reinstatement.

At the general’s request, the Air Force Inspector General is reviewing the use of cadet informants on the campus, including Thomas’ case. On Tuesday, Johnson said in a statement she has directed an executive review of the academy’s disenrollment process. Johnson was at NATO in Brussels when the Thomas case and other incidents took place. 

“I can’t control what has happened in the past. I can only be as transparent as I can be,” she told the Editorial Board.

Johnson said she’s also concerned about misconduct among cadets but that it’s “not so rampant.” Despite some high-profile misdeeds including sexual assault convictions in the past year, other measures of conduct are exemplary — it has been more than a year since a cadet was caught for drunken driving.

“My greater concern as a commander is the underlying culture,” Johnson said.

She’s examining how cadets are educated on honor and behavior and will have a colonel assigned to monitor the school’s “climate and culture” programs.

She also fears that students are sometimes more attuned to each other than to the academy’s ideals.  

“Sometimes it happens on a team or in a group — you start being more loyal to each other than to the big institution,” she said.

The OSI controversy is among several that have made Johnson’s first four months in command particularly turbulent. One was the school being the subject of a critical Pentagon Inspector General report that found the academy’s historic items weren’t properly tracked. Another was that the academy made the appellation “so help me God” optional in its honor oath under criticism from a religious freedom group. The academy is also facing possible budget cuts because of the Pentagon’s proposed $1 trillion in downsizing over the next 10 years.  

However, the general again asserted that she’s doing everything possible to take control of the challenges and involving her officers and the cadets throughout the process. She also is working to build ties with other Colorado Springs higher education institutions, working to open the academy to attract more visitors and seeking to make the academy the nation’s premiere think tank for character and leadership studies.

“It’s been an opportunity to say let’s pull together and focus on the same sight picture,” Johnson told the Editorial Board.

Gazette reporter Dave Philipps contributed to this report.


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