High-ranking Air Force female fighter pilot fostered toxic environment as leader of secret Pentagon office, IG finds
By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 19, 2020
WASHINGTON — Maj. Gen. Dawn Dunlop, one of the Air Force’s highest-ranking female fighter pilots, regularly belittled subordinates and clashed with peers before her removal as the leader of a Pentagon office responsible for some of the military’s most secret programs, an Air Force inspector general probe found.
Investigators substantiated allegations that Dunlop publicly chastised and disrespected military and civilian workers during her time as director of the Defense Department’s Special Access Programs Central Office, or SAPCO, which she ran from August 2018 until her firing in May 2019. Her actions created a toxic work environment, investigators wrote in the January 2020 investigation report obtained Wednesday by Stars and Stripes.
Witnesses said morale in the SAPCO office, which is charged with oversight of highly classified projects that require security and safeguards beyond the scope of typical secret information, dropped almost immediately after Dunlop’s arrival and quickly rose after her removal on May 31, 2019. They told investigators the general routinely talked down to others and treated them like children she needed to parent. In at least one case, Dunlop called a subordinate’s work “crap,” and in another incident, a subordinate accused the general of angrily grabbing her hand without permission.
“In isolation, each of these instances may be viewed as Maj. Gen. Dunlop having an occasional bad day, having infrequent difficulties communicating her intent with her staff, or reacting badly in a time-stressed situation,” the IG investigators wrote. “However, cumulatively, and given the totality of the facts and circumstances, the preponderance of evidence supports Maj. Gen. Dunlop engaged in a pattern of disrespectful behavior toward her staff … in a way that was pervasive, personal, public and disproportional.”
Through more than 30 years in the Air Force, Dunlop — who remains on active duty — has proven herself a trailblazing fighter pilot. She was the first woman to become a fighter test pilot and the first to fly the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jet. In 2010, she became the Air Force’s first woman to command a test wing.
But some witnesses said her leadership style did not mesh with her role at SAPCO. Dunlop told investigators she entered the Pentagon office intent on making changes to improve its work and to align it better with the vision of then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. She described her leadership style to them as “purpose-driven, data-driven, open, and very transparent.”
Investigators found 21 of the 26 witnesses whom they interviewed during their probe held a negative opinion of Dunlop. They highlighted “weekly, sometimes daily” incidents in which she berated workers in Pentagon hallways over small mistakes or “just snapped” at a senior officer from another service during a meeting.
Other witnesses said they believed she meant well and might not have realized she was treating people poorly.
“I think she’s a good fighter pilot. I think she’s a good general officer,” one unnamed staff member said. “I think she lacked communications skills.”
Witnesses recalled Dunlop was preparing on Jan. 4, 2019, to meet a retired officer with a business proposal at the Pentagon for coffee. A female staff member, whose name was redacted from the IG report, advised the general that the retired officer would meet Dunlop in her office, catching her by surprise.
The staff member told investigators that she was looking down at Dunlop’s schedule as the general was expressing dismay that the retired officer would see her office, which she said needed to be cleaned.
“And, as I did this, she, uh, took my hand and said … ‘Look at me,’ you know to get my attention,” the staff member told investigators, describing Dunlop as “angry.”
The staff member demonstrated the grab for investigators, the report states, telling them it was not ‘real tight,’ but she was “shocked” that Dunlop had grabbed her hand without permission. Eyewitnesses corroborated the incident, and one reported it to Pentagon police about a week later.
“To be honest, I thought if that was a male general, he might have been done that day,” one witness, whose name was redacted from the report, told investigators. “I did not think a male general would have survived that, if he had grabbed a 115 pound lady like that.”
Dunlop never apologized for the incident and seemed to downplay it, investigators wrote, telling them she remembered it as “a light touch” that lasted at most about five seconds and was meant only to ensure the staff member was listening to her. She denied she was angry at the time.
“I think it was a very brief touch. I did not think much of it,” Dunlop told investigators. “I thought it was an appropriate way to see if we were having a conversation or not.”
The IG investigators shared their findings with the Air Force’s criminal investigative service, the Office of Special Investigations, which declined to pursue an assault charge.
Nonetheless, the IG found that incident “compromised her standing as an officer” and “constituted indecorum and conduct unbecoming an officer.”
Dunlop, a 1988 graduate of the Air Force Academy in Colorado who has logged more than 3,500 hours flying fighter jets, defended many of her actions and leadership style as SAPCO’s leader to IG investigators. She said workers in the office were not used to facing direct criticism of their work, which she argued needed improvement.
She said her intention was never to belittle her subordinates, especially in public.
“What I have found effective in my career, or what has worked for me, on me, is just the very direct: Here’s what needs to be fixed, and here’s why, and you go and fix it and you move on,” she said in an IG interview. She added her style “might have been too much for them.”
After her removal from SAPCO, Dunlop served about one year as a special assistant to the Air Force vice chief of staff. In May, she was named Air Force’s director of operational capacity requirements.
An email seeking comment from a law firm representing Dunlop was not returned immediately Wednesday. Her attorney Gary Myers said in a statement to Air Force Times, which first reported the probe’s findings, that Dunlop vowed to learn from the IG’s conclusions.
Myers said the issues raised by witnesses grew out of Dunlop’s desire to implement reforms in the SAPCO office and were not malicious.
“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’ statement read.