Our first reaction to The Gazette's impressive report on how a small number of cadets at the Air Force Academy are recruited as informants to spy on their colleagues was one of sympathy for former cadet Eric Thomas — and indeed dismay on his behalf.
If the details of his story are true, as The Gazette's reporting (reprinted in Monday's Denver Post) suggests, then he was betrayed by an institution he trusted — “thrown out of the academy as punishment for doing the things the Air Force secretly told him to do,” in the words of the report.
But that initial reaction is not the only one we think is warranted. It's also reasonable to ask what the Air Force is doing using cadets in this fashion at all. It puts them in an excruciating position where they must constantly deceive those around them and break rules they've sworn to uphold — in short, live the equivalent of a lie.
These are college-age students trying to succeed in what is already one of the most demanding environments young adults can encounter. Then they are saddled with the extra pressure of spying on other cadets suspected of transgressions.
The sense of isolation and intrigue at times must be almost unbearable.
If the academy thinks it has such a serious problem with drug use and sexual assault that it needs the assistance of informants, then maybe it should plant professionals trained in such work in the cadet corps. But for the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) to recruit cadets for such a job is disturbing at best.
Thomas appears to have been a stellar informant. Indeed, his covert activity continued even after he got in trouble for infractions related to it and for which he eventually would be expelled. He expected OSI to straighten matters out with the academy's discipline boards, but it failed to do so.
Even after the shabby way Thomas was apparently treated, he still defends the program. “I am not saying people shouldn't work for OSI,” he said. “We did a lot of good work. But they need protection.”
In fact, his own story indicates some of what's wrong with employing cadets as informants. Not only did his academic performance suffer as a result of the OSI's extracurricular demands, but his reputation did as well.
“My chain of command thought I was a dirtbag who didn't care about the rules,” he said, “when the truth was the opposite.”
Thomas deserves justice, which could begin with a clear statement on his case from the academy, which refused comment for The Gazette's article.
Meanwhile, the Air Force should reassess whether using cadets as informants isn't inevitably unfair to those selected for such awkward and unusual duty.