Air Force allegedly uses spy system of cadet informants to counter misconduct
COLORADO SPRINGS — Facing pressure to combat drug use and sexual assault at the Air Force Academy, the Air Force has established a secret system of cadet informants to hunt for misconduct among students.
Cadets who attend the publicly funded academy near Colorado Springs 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 just 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 back 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.
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 confirmed the program, which has not been reported in the media, through interviews with multiple informants, phone and text records, former OSI agents, court filings and documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
“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' lawyer. The superintendent did not reply.
The Air Force has not replied to a letter sent by Thomas' senator, John Thune of South Dakota, in September asking officials to meet with Thomas.
The Gazette identified four informants. Three agreed to speak about their experience with OSI. All had been told they were the only informant on campus, but eventually learned of more, including each other.
“It's contradictory to everything the academy is trying to do,” said one of the informants, Vianca Torres. “They say we are one big family, and to trust each other, then they make you lie to everyone.”
Academy commanders declined multiple requests for interviews. OSI declined requests for comment, saying in a statement it could neither confirm nor deny the existence of the program.
Gen. Mark Welsh, the chief of staff of the Air Force, the service's top officer and 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.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Colorado clinic shooting suspect talked of baby parts, police say
- Police officer killed in Colorado Spring clinic rampage a co-pastor, figure skater
- Slow-moving, wintry storm packs punch in Plains, Midwest
- Federal $1.1 trillion spending bill loaded with policy deals
- Disability claim waits grow alongside swelling caseloads for judges
- Prof proposes museum of corruption in New York capital
- AIDS activist finishes rowing across Atlantic
- Authorization for NSA dragnets of phone call data expires
- Police union stands by Chicago officer charged with murdering teen
- VA Phoenix social worker on leave for Halloween costume
- Kids making oral history with StoryCorps holiday project