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"It's very difficult to defend yourself in a forum like that," he continues. "I don't see why these cadets aren't allowed to have counsel. 'Beyond a reasonable doubt' is not easy to articulate; it's not easy for a lot of lawyers to articulate. And no case ever goes as planned. Witnesses often deviate from what they're going to say, and you have to be ready to handle challenges like that. That's what lawyers are trained to do, not what cadets are trained to do."
The GAO report found similar concerns among other service-academy defense attorneys, who said students are often inept at representing themselves because they're too emotionally involved in the case, are too intimidated to question commissioned officers, and "try to imitate lawyers they have seen on television and in movies, and they are generally not effective at doing this."
Yet that is not even the most controversial part of the honor system. That honor belongs to the "toleration" clause. Turning in a friend is counter to what cadets are taught at the academy. From the moment freshmen enter basic training, they're told how important it is to rely on one another in battle. At the same time, the academy tells them to have what Brigadier General Weida calls a "hierarchy" of loyalties. "It starts with your God, your country, your Air Force, your Air Force Academy, and then your peers," he says, adding that "loyalty to peers is not a bad thing -- as long as you understand that when you're faced with a situation where, if your peer is now not adhering to our standards, you have to default to a higher loyalty, whether it's the Air Force Academy, the Air Force, your country, whatever."
But just as friends have a tendency to cover for each other, enemies have a knack for ratting on cadets they don't like. "I couldn't even begin to guess how many cases I saw, but I saw cases where it seemed a cadet was not well liked and the honor system was used as a tool to get rid of that cadet," Williams says.
A significant portion of cadets agree. The GAO report found that "while about half or more of the students at each academy indicated a belief that the honor system was not an easy way to get a cadet/midshipman out of the academy, from 22 to 38 percent disagreed."
Yet Weida, who has only been at the academy three months, insists that the many levels of review keep the process fair. "No one ever operates alone in this system," he says. And if someone tried to abuse it, the cadet would be disciplined, he adds.
Prior to an honor hearing, boardmembers are told to recuse themselves if they feel they can't be impartial. If they don't, the accused can challenge the members of the honor board. But despite the existence of what appears to be a safeguard, Williams advised his cadets to use extreme caution in using it. "It's risky, because if you challenge them and that challenge is denied, then they really have a grudge against you," he says. "All they have to do is say they can be impartial."
Williams acknowledges that the honor system is often effective at weeding out bad cadets, and that innocent cadets are frequently exonerated by honor boards. In fact, the number of cadets found not guilty by an honor board -- 202 since 1996 -- is almost double the number found guilty. But Williams believes there are still good cadets being turned out. "I saw enough cases that made me question the legitimacy of the honor system," he says. "When I first came to the academy, I thought that because the consequences of being found in violation of the honor code are so extreme and so costly to everyone involved -- including the taxpayers -- that only slam-dunk cases would go forward, but I didn't see that."
Although probation was introduced as an option for honor offenders in 1990, disenrollment remains the presumptive sanction, particularly for juniors and seniors. Of the cadets disenrolled because of honor violations between 1996 and 2002, 52 percent were seniors, 40 percent were juniors, 13 percent were sophomores and 7 percent were freshmen.
"You could be a senior in good standing and have never had a brush with the honor system, and all the sudden you're brought up on honor and you're facing disenrollment," Williams says. "Presumably someone can learn more about integrity by going through the honor system and doing probation than by getting kicked out. Maybe the better presumption would be if you have two honor violations, then you get disenrolled, because you should have learned your lesson the first time."
Cadets and academy officers agree that probation is valuable -- and there is an extensive program for offenders -- but they still feel that disenrollment is necessary in some cases. "We have to remember that the code is the minimum standard. If you can't live by that, you have no business being here," says deputy Wing Honor Board chairman Durham. "If a cadet falls, it's because they never really got it or they didn't want to. If they get to the point where they're a [senior] and they still don't get it, they should be disenrolled."