For more than forty years, cadets at the United States Air Force Academy have been pledging to live honorably and to abide by a simple code: "We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does."
It is their most sacred tradition, a bond to those who have gone before them. The Air Force Cadet Wing Honor Code Reference Handbook tells them so. As such, the honor code demands absolute loyalty. Violating any part of it could indicate serious character flaws -- flaws that could make cadets bad officers. And bad officers are a danger to their country. So liars, cheaters and thieves must be expelled from the ranks, and the honor code is the way, the truth and the light.
On the surface, the cadet-run honor system seems a way to ensure that Air Force officers are the best of the best. But former cadets and a former academy attorney say that the very procedures designed to ensure fairness are often ignored. That the most basic due-process rights -- rights cadets are prepared to defend in combat -- are not granted to them. That the system is sometimes used simply to get rid of a student who doesn't fit in. That the punishment -- particularly the frequent disenrollment of cadets just prior to graduation -- often doesn't fit the crime.
But it's a system that cadets are taught to revere. "Second-guessing or questioning the results of a [Wing Honor Board] in any official record or communication improperly undermines the decision and respect due the [Wing Honor Board]," reads the honor-code handbook.
Like the academy rapes that Westword first revealed six months ago ("The War Within," January 30), the honor system's problems are both widespread and decades old. Between 1996 and 2002 -- the only years for which the academy has reliable data -- 821 cadets were brought up on honor charges; that averages out to roughly 137 students a year. In many cases the charges were dropped, but 323 cadets denied guilt and went before a Wing Honor Board, where 121 of them were found guilty. The 285 cadets who admitted breaking the code appeared before a different cadet panel, where all but ten of them were determined not only to have committed an honor violation, but also to have done so willingly rather than mistakenly. Of the cadets found guilty by either method, 96 resigned and 71 were kicked out.
As a result, many cadets, such as Andrea Prasse (see sidebar), have lost faith in the honor system. They claim that it's a moribund tradition with unevenly applied sanctions -- a fact that academy officials and members of Congress have known for years. In response to critical task forces and studies, honor-system procedures have been tinkered with but never seriously overhauled. Now, in the aftermath of the rape scandal, critics worry that the honor code will be applied even more broadly. In his "Agenda for Change," a set of reforms intended to improve the climate for female cadets at the academy, Air Force Secretary James Roche stresses the importance of not tolerating criminal behavior. He emphasizes that it's not the letter of the code that matters, but the spirit.
That has some cadets wondering just what this new spirit might mean for them.
Josh Moynihan was scared. Terrified, actually. His whole future was on the line, and he suddenly felt all alone.
He had wanted to be a fighter pilot since he was eleven. Watching the F-16s whiz above him at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, where his stepfather was stationed, was a daily wonder.
He knew the best way to get into one of those planes was through the Air Force Academy, so Josh applied and secured nominations from congressmen in Maryland, where he was living at the time. But he was turned away, his verbal SAT scores too low for acceptance. Determined, he called the deputy director of selections at the academy and sent the school letters explaining how motivated he was. Finally, the academy admitted him.
Josh studied hard and stayed out of trouble -- he says he had a flawless disciplinary record except for a few parking tickets. By his senior year, he had a 2.7 grade-point average -- above average at the academy, thanks to rigorous military training and a course load of more than twenty credit hours a semester -- and was ready to go to flight school.
But last year, just months before he was scheduled to graduate, Josh was accused of lying.
A good friend of his had turned 21, and Josh had been meaning to take him out for beers. So when his civilian buddy called and suggested they go to Old Chicago in Colorado Springs on the evening of January 16, 2002, Josh agreed, scrapping earlier plans to visit friends in Denver.
It was a Wednesday, and Josh left the base about 5 p.m., which put him "over the fence" -- off base without permission. The rules had changed that year, and senior cadets were no longer allowed to leave the base early on weeknights; in years past, they'd been free to go as soon as they were done with classes. Josh's fellow seniors hated the new policy -- which was designed to create more of a training environment -- and frequently left base early anyway. "I can say with certainty that no one who graduates from the academy hasn't gone OTF," Josh says. "It's no big deal."
Josh called his roommate periodically to see if anyone in his squadron needed him. Around 10:30 p.m., his squadron commander called his cell phone and told him he needed to talk to him; Josh hurried back immediately. He was busted for being OTF. But instead of demerits, the commander suggested relieving Josh of his squadron leadership job. When the commander asked him where he'd been, Josh blurted out "Denver." And that's when the trouble really began.
Josh was flustered and nervous and said the first thing that came to mind, which was Denver, since those were his original plans. "I didn't correct myself at the time because I didn't think it mattered," he explains. "OTF is OTF, no matter where you go."
When he thought about it the next day, though, Josh decided he should clarify his mistake. But it wasn't soon enough, according to the honor regulations: "If you knowingly allow a misunderstanding or misperception to stand, you may have allowed a lie to be created and may have violated the Honor Code."
When Josh explained that he'd actually stayed in Colorado Springs, his squadron commander didn't seem to care. "He had no reaction. He was like, 'Oh, okay, whatever,'" Josh recalls. The next morning, however, the squadron commander asked Josh to come to his room without offering a reason. When he got there, four members of the honor committee, including one with whom Josh had never gotten along, were ready to hold an honor "clarification" to determine whether he'd lied about his whereabouts.
"That totally caught me by surprise," says Josh, who knew cadets were supposed to receive advance notice of a clarification -- which the handbook clearly states is "not an interrogation." "It never struck me that it could be an honor issue, since I came forward on my own. They kept firing off questions like, 'Why did you say Denver when you meant Colorado Springs?' It was clear that they didn't believe me."
Facing an impasse, the cadet in charge said they'd reconvene in the dorm television room a few days later for a second clarification. "I was more nervous at the second one, because I knew I had to get my point across," Josh says. "This is where they were going to decide whether to call an honor board."
They asked the same questions they had at the first clarification, and Josh reiterated his earlier explanation about having been nervous. But nerves are no excuse for lying.
"Any statement made under stress, if intended to deceive, is still a lie, regardless of whether or not the statement is corrected. A momentary lapse of integrity still violates the Honor Code. Such emotional appeals as, 'I didn't mean to lie...it just came out,' do not exonerate a cadet of his or her intent," the honor handbook explains. "Even in the most stressful of circumstances, cadets are faced with a fundamental decision; to be honest, or not. The split second when we make that decision is often where intent is determined, and if we choose not to be completely honest, our next action will likely be an act in violation of the Honor Code."
Josh says he had no reason to lie -- being OTF in Denver was no worse than being OTF in Colorado Springs. Still, the honor committee recommended his case to a Wing Honor Board. When honor officers came to his room to deliver the news, he "couldn't believe it was happening," Josh remembers. "A thousand things were going through my mind. Mostly I was wondering what was going to happen to my career."
A few weeks later, three investigating cadets interviewed Josh -- never telling him he had the right to consult an attorney. A week later, they realized their mistake and offered to scratch the interview and conduct a second one if Josh wanted to see a lawyer. He did, consulting James Williams, a former academy defense attorney. But it didn't change anything: A Wing Honor Board was scheduled for March 19, 2002.
Inside the hearing room in Vandenberg Hall, which houses the honor division, Josh took a seat at one end of a long table. The chair-man of the board sat at the other, while the eight voting cadets sat along the sides. Josh opted to have his board open, and several people came to support him. He wanted to call the friend he'd taken to Old Chicago as a witness, but the investigating team wouldn't allow it; one of the cadets on that team told him civilians couldn't be trusted, Josh says. The only witnesses to testify were the squadron officer, another cadet officer and Josh's roommate, who had turned Josh in for being OTF. Although the proceeding was civil, the approximately two-hour ordeal was highly uncomfortable. "I had to turn into my own lawyer, knowing nothing of the law," Josh says. "I wish I could have consulted with someone sitting there, because I was very nervous."
After the questioning, Josh made a final statement and then was dismissed from the room while the boardmembers deliberated in private. He was summoned back 45 minutes later. "I went in expecting to hear 'Not guilty,' but I heard 'Guilty' and froze," he says.
Once everyone else had left, the chairman told him that the boardmembers thought he'd actually been in Denver rather than Colorado Springs on the night in question. "I couldn't believe it!" Josh remembers. "The case was never about me being in Denver! It was always an issue of why I said Denver rather than Colorado Springs. All the investigation questions were about why I said that; I thought it was always assumed I was in the Springs."
If he'd known, Josh could have submitted his credit-card receipt from Old Chicago as evidence. But it was too late.
A couple of days after the honor board, Josh went to the commissioned officer in charge of the honor division to explain that there'd been a misunderstanding. "She just told me what a bad person I was. She wasn't interested in listening to anything that was wrong with her system," he recalls. "Every officer I spoke to after that was the same: No one wanted to hear it; no one cared."
The group Air Officer Commanding told him, "I've decided to recommend disenrollment, but what do you have to say?" Josh remembers. He was in shock: "He already made up his mind before he met with me!"
At a different meeting, he says, his squadron AOC said, "I don't want you in my Air Force."
Although the academy can't comment on specific honor cases, Brigadier General Johnny Weida, the new commandant of cadets, defends the system. When asked whether innocent cadets can be found guilty by an honor board, Weida responds: "Let me answer it this way: Have you ever heard someone convicted in a court of law in the civilian world that claimed they're innocent? We do our best to administer the system in as fair a manner as we can.
"And although it is a cadet honor code, the cadets don't have the final decision. The final decision ultimately can rest with the superintendent. The cadet is reviewed by the staff that runs the Center for Character Development, and then it's forwarded to my staff, and then ultimately I review it. And then, should I choose to disenroll a cadet, it will be forwarded to the superintendent; and then the superintendent, should he choose, can send it to a panel that we call the Academy Board of very experienced officers that will look at the case from A to Z and give the superintendent advice and counsel on what should be done with the case. So I'm absolutely confident that we've made the system as fair as possible. So if a cadet thinks they've been treated unfairly, well, we've set it up as fair as we humanly know how."
In Josh's case, then-commandant of cadets Brigadier General Taco Gilbert -- who was recently reassigned to the Pentagon after being criticized for his handling of several academy rape allegations -- decided to accept the recommendations for disenrollment.
A cadet can appeal the disenrollment decision, but not the board's verdict. Such appeals can take months, however, during which time the cadet isn't allowed to leave base. Josh didn't want to put his life on hold any longer, so he resigned in May 2002. "I didn't even want to be an officer anymore. I couldn't believe they would let something like this happen and then not even listen," Josh says. "I couldn't believe every single person in the chain of command was like that. Why would I want to work with people like that?
"It was absolutely devastating. It's difficult to explain the feeling, but I was a sad person. I was crying all the time, and I had to talk to a chaplain at the academy," he continues. "People who have gotten DUIs and done drugs [which are not honor violations] have gone on to graduate. It just shows how incorrectly the academy is set up. They've put this honor code on a pedestal, and if you violate it -- no matter how big or small the violation is -- it's considered worse than breaking a law."
Since Josh couldn't reimburse the government $129,000 for the cost of his academy education, he was sent to Beale Air Force Base in California, to serve three years' enlisted time. Although he had planned to be in pilot school by now, Josh has come to enjoy working in combat-crew communications. Other than the summer jobs he held in high school, this is his first time having real responsibility. And he's adjusted well. In May he received the Operations Group Airman Performer of the Month award.
Josh had no intention of remaining in the Air Force after his three years were up, but after many months of frustration, he finds that his faith in the Air Force -- if not the Air Force Academy -- is slowly being restored. The people he works with have all been sympathetic to his situation, he says, and he's been given officer duties. He's even considering applying to be an officer -- and staying in the Air Force.
The tradition of upholding honor in the nation's military schools dates back more than a century, when fistfights were used to weed out liars, cheaters and thieves at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.
"Formalization of the honor system started to evolve in the late 1800s, when cadets began organizing 'vigilance committees.' The vigilance committee investigated possible honor violations and reported its findings to the cadet chain of command," stated a 1995 General Accounting Office report on the honor systems at the Military, Naval and Air Force academies that was commissioned after various cheating scandals caught the attention of Congress. "If a cadet was found guilty, he would be pressured to resign. Although these committees were not officially recognized by Academy authorities, their existence was tolerated and their decisions unofficially sanctioned. In 1922, during the administration of Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur as Superintendent, a formal student honor committee was established, and it codified the existing unwritten rules."
All three academies now have their own, very similar honor codes. The Air Force Academy adopted an honor code in 1956 and then slightly reworded it in the early '60s to read as it does today. The Naval Academy's, however, is more of a concept than a code. In 1950, the Annapolis, Maryland-based school came up with the phrase "Midshipmen are persons of integrity: They stand for that which is right" because, the GAO report explained, the superintendent "did not want a system that would codify right and wrong, or a system that over the years would become so involved with loopholes and elastic clauses that soon its very principles would degenerate into a set of rights and wrongs that would enable and tempt midshipmen to do wrong yet still be within the codified system's bounds of right."
Which is exactly what Josh Moynihan and other survivors of the system suggest has happened at the Air Force Academy.
"To have an institution with an honor code is a good thing," says former cadet Sean Dariushnia. "The problem is not with the honor code; it's with the honor system -- and the system is flawed. The way the system enforces the code is inappropriate; it goes overboard and becomes a witch-hunt at times."
On paper, the honor code appears to have careful safeguards against error and abuse, with a rigid chain of command operating throughout. But it's still run by a committee of 164 cadets, or honor officers, elected by their peers for two-year terms and given the power to not just run honor-training courses, but to punish their fellow cadets and end careers.
That's a major concern of the GAO report, in which defense attorneys interviewed "questioned whether students in their late teens and early twenties have the maturity of judgment and perspective to make such highly subjective judgments where the consequences can taint an individual for life, noting that it seemed ironic that the honor system was virtually the only area of academy life where academy authorities treated students as though they were responsible adults."
Brigadier General Weida has no such qualms. "It needs to be a cadet-run system because, like everything else in life, if you take ownership of it and it's your deal, you're more apt to embrace it," he says. "But because of the serious consequences of an honor violation, we have officer review of the results. I think it's a good check and balance."
Lieutenant Colonel Ron Watkins, chief of the academy's honor division, agrees. "I believe we can trust these cadets to do this," he says. After all, soldiers in their teens and twenties make life-or-death decisions when they're sent into battle.
Anyone can bring an honor allegation to the committee -- be it another cadet, an officer or even a civilian -- although those making the allegations are pretty evenly split between cadets and officers. The vast majority of the hearings are for lying, followed by cheating, with stealing and "toleration" making up only small percentages of the overall cases.
But before the committee hears any case, the accuser must first confront the cadet. If the accused refuses to discuss the situation or doesn't satisfactorily answer questions, then the honor committee must be notified and hold a fact-finding clarification, which "is [meant] to get everything on the table, and the focus of this whole system is do the right thing, just explain what happened," Watkins says. "All the cadet has to do is tell the truth from the very beginning. If the system is going to default, it will default in favor of the cadet."
The hearing is also supposed to happen in a non-threatening environment, where the accused feels "at ease." And that's a sticking point for cadets going through the process: They don't feel at ease being grilled about their integrity.
"There is no situation more adversarial than when someone's honor and character are called into question," the GAO report paraphrased a service-academy attorney as saying.
The inquiry ends if the clarification is successful. But if any questioner is still suspicious, the honor division must be notified, turning the allegation into a case. (In the event that the alleged honor violation involves possible criminal action -- for example, a cadet who applies for a credit card in someone else's name and then makes charges on it -- the case must be reported to the academy's legal department and may instead fall under the military justice system.)
A team of three cadets then investigates the charges, formalizes the allegations and sends the cadet in question a letter asking for an admission or denial of the charges within 48 hours. During that time, the cadet can consult with anyone he wishes, but no attorney or other representative may speak for the cadet in any of the hearings because, the academy says, the honor board is a "non-adversarial" administrative proceeding rather than a judicial one.
Watkins says he tries to ensure that cadets have a chance to consult with an attorney before they sign the charges. "If something arises where there is a legitimate reason why they cannot get to an attorney and they want to get to one, we will even work with them to give them enough time to ensure they're able to do that," he says. "We're watching out for the cadets all along the way, and the honor committee is watching out for the cadets all along the way as well."
If a cadet admits guilt, a cadet-run sanctions panel recommends punishment to the commandant. But if a cadet denies guilt -- as happens in most cases -- a Wing Honor Board of eight cadets (none from the accused's squadron) and one non-voting officer convenes to hear the case, using "reasonable doubt" as the standard for determining guilt. (The Military and Naval academies require only a preponderance of evidence.)
During the board, the accused cadet doesn't have to testify but can call witnesses and present evidence -- though only the chairman can determine what is admissible and who may be called. Deliberations are held in private, and the vote is taken by secret ballots, which are destroyed once the proceedings are complete. Six of the eight boardmembers are required to find a cadet guilty, but the boardmembers don't have to offer a rationale for their finding. If they do vote against the cadet, the committee recommends one of two sanctions to the command chain: probation or disenrollment.
And yet the honor handbook emphasizes that the code "should not be feared, but rather used as a cornerstone to help develop one's character," and that the principles behind it "give us a framework for making decisions because they are morally positive and inspiring, not because they threaten retribution."
Sean Dariushnia was a stellar student planning to be a career Air Force doctor. In his junior year, he'd taken 28 credit hours -- a huge course load even by academy standards -- and was frequently on the dean's list. By his senior year, he had a 3.2 grade-point average and a clean disciplinary record. He'd gotten the highest MCAT score in his 1993 graduating class and had secured a full-ride scholarship to Ohio State University's College of Medicine.
But just days before his graduation, Sean's analytical-chemistry professor accused him of cheating on his final exam. Sean's answers -- and the way he'd arrived at them -- were similar to those of another student. His lab partner.
Sean says he had no reason to cheat, since he had completed all of the coursework necessary for graduation and only enrolled in the chemistry class because he thought it would be good background for medical school. Plus, he says, "I could have failed the exam and gotten a B in the class."
When his day in court arrived, he says it was more like a kangaroo court. "The proceeding was very slanted toward the professor. They allowed testimony that was inappropriate, like when the professor said he was convinced that I'd cheated before, and now he'd caught me."
Sean tried to cross-examine the professor, but claims he was cut off for asking leading questions (a common occurrence, since cadets typically have no legal training or attorney to guide them), and the boardmembers were told not to consider lack of motive when voting. "The members at times were laughing at me," Sean remembers. "The mentality is that you're guilty and you have to prove you're innocent. I don't know what causes people to act the way they do at the academy, but it seems to be repeating itself over and over."
He talked to the academy's judge advocate general about the board. "He wanted to listen to the testimony, but for some reason, the transcript disappeared and the tape was unintelligible," Sean says. "The squadron honor officer felt the conduct of the board was horrific, and he wrote a letter saying so, but the chain of command blew it off, just like they blew off the JAG's concerns."
The day before graduation, Sean learned he wouldn't be walking with his class, so he appealed the disenrollment decision with then-Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall. He was confined to campus and only allowed to leave in August, after a board of senior academy officials reviewed his case and determined there were some irregularities. One of the officials who sat on that academy review board, Sean says, was the chairman of the chemistry department and a staunch advocate of the professor who was trying to kick him out. But the chairman didn't recuse himself from the board, which ultimately upheld the disenrollment decision. The case went on to Widnall's desk, where it sat for almost two years. During that time, Sean went home to Ohio and worked toward a bachelor's degree at Ohio State University.
In February 1995, he finally heard from the Air Force: the secretary had denied his appeal and was ordering him to report to active duty as an enlisted officer. Through an attorney, Sean offered to pay the government the $80,000 cost of his education in return for his discharge, or to attend medical school and serve his Air Force time as a doctor.
The Air Force verbally agreed to the latter, and Sean was again accepted into Ohio State University's medical school. But the secretary rescinded the offer just after he'd started fall classes. He'd have to serve enlisted time. With help from his attorney, Sean obtained a temporary restraining order from a federal court in Ohio barring the Air Force from making him serve. But the court refused a permanent injunction, saying he needed to exhaust all of his military remedies first. His only recourse was the Air Force Board for the Correction of Military Records, an entity that moves about as fast as molasses. In the meantime, Sean says, "I had 24 hours to get down to Texas."
While he worked as a nurse's aid at Sheppard Air Force Base, Sean came up with the idea of joining the Reserve. That way, he could go home, attend medical school and serve his time all at once. The commander at Sheppard agreed to the request and forwarded it to the Air Force Personnel Center at Randolph Air Force Base.
When he heard in April 1996 that the personnel center had approved his request, Sean felt hopeful for the first time in almost three years. He wasted no time packing his bags and was just about to leave base when his sergeant called him with bad news: Orders had come down from Washington that the personnel center's approval had been overturned. Sean would have to remain in Texas and serve the rest of his three years. "It was like a prison sentence," Sean remembers. "At that point, I hit a wall mentally. I had to be hospitalized for depression."
Being treated for depression meant Sean might be unfit for military service, so his case went before a medical review board on May 2, 1996. The board agreed with the depression diagnosis, and a physical-evaluation board decided later that month that Sean should be discharged. Sean's doctors told him he'd be free to leave within two weeks; all that was needed was for the Air Force Personnel Center to process his separation order. "I felt they'd find some way to keep me there, and, in fact, that's what did happen," he says.
After weeks went by with no word, Sean's psychiatrist, Colonel Thanesseri Baskaran, called the personnel center and learned that the case had been forwarded to Widnall. The doctor wrote to Widnall, urging her to release Sean as soon as possible. Widnall responded in mid-September, saying she wanted a second opinion. So Sean went to Lackland Air Force Base, where doctors once again diagnosed him with depression and warned that continued retention would exacerbate his condition. "They felt I should be separated immediately, so what does the Air Force do? They sit on it," Sean says.
Months passed. Finally, Sean's military doctors, upset about his situation and worried about his mental health, contacted the Air Force Times despite warnings from their superiors. "We want to act now rather than wait and then say we should have done something after it's too late," Captain Kenneth Graham told the Times. On March 12, 1997, two days after the story was published, Widnall finally let Sean go.
"I'm thoroughly convinced that if it hadn't been for that Air Force Times reporter, I'd still be rotting there," says Sean, who explains that his depression was situational. "It was all brought on by the academy and the events thereafter. The academy has such control over the Air Force. It's such an old-boy network throughout. If the academy doesn't like someone, it can influence a lot of people far up in the chain of command and subsequently do bad things to people."
In the years since his ordeal, Sean has done well for himself. He returned to medical school at Ohio State, graduated in 2001 and is now doing a residency in radiology. "I should have been practicing by now. This set me back five years," says the 32-year-old, estimating that his family spent more than $100,000 fighting the Air Force.
The Air Force Academy has suffered numerous honor-related scandals over the years, and with each one, the system has been revised. In the early 1960s, seniors who violated the honor code could be given probation or other punishments, but after two cheating episodes later that decade, cadets who were found guilty were asked to resign. Another cheating scandal in 1972 resulted in a review of the honor system by the secretary of the Air Force, which led to the adoption of the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard. After yet another case of widespread cheating in 1984, disenrollment became mandatory for juniors and seniors found guilty of honor violations.
But honor scandals don't just plague the AFA: Numerous cadets at the Military Academy at West Point were disenrolled for cheating on exams or class projects in 1951, 1966, 1973 and 1976, and a huge scandal erupted at the Naval Academy in 1993, when 88 midshipmen were declared guilty of cheating on an engineering test.
Extensive congressional hearings have been held on the topic, including a military-academy-wide investigation after the 1993 incident, which resulted in the 1995 General Accounting Office report. And now, in the wake of the biggest sexual-assault scandal in the Air Force Academy's history, the honor code is again front and center.
According to the Agenda for Change, a set of policy directives released by Air Force Secretary James Roche in March, "The Air Force Academy must bolster those processes and systems that guide honorable conduct, of which discipline for infractions is an integral component. The Academy must ensure cadets understand and exercise the spirit of these values in the context of their future in the Air Force.
"The climate we strive to achieve at the Air Force Academy is one in which cadets take appropriate action to deter, stop, or report the criminal actions of a few that sully the reputation of themselves, their fellow cadets and the United States Air Force," the Agenda continues. "Character is a requirement for a practitioner of the profession of arms in the US Air Force. For this reason, we place special emphasis on the 'toleration clause' of the Cadet Honor Code. It must be made clear that loyalty should never be confused with excessive tolerance, and that covering up another cadet's criminal activity cannot be viewed as loyalty to a comrade. Ignoring or covering up illegal activity among our peers is to protect one who has violated his or her own loyalty to the institution and his or her fellow cadets. Active duty officers who oversee and provide advice to cadets about the administration of the honor code should assure compliance with its spirit."
That language concerns former AFA defense attorney Williams, who wonders whether the honor system will become even broader -- potentially placing more cadets at risk of honor charges -- as the academy tries to show the public it doesn't tolerate sexual assault or any other unbecoming conduct.
"I hoped the Agenda for Change would get to the root of the problem at the Air Force Academy," says Williams, who, in addition to Josh Moynihan, also represented alleged rape victim Jessica Brakey. "To me, the root of the problem was that some commanders at the academy were allowed to take the law into their own hands and do whatever they wanted. So how do you stop that? You establish procedural rules, and you follow them to the letter. Because the academy is under fire, it looks like they're going to get more subjective with the honor code. They're suggesting that the procedural rules don't necessarily matter -- that it's the spirit of the code that matters. But what does that mean, and how do you interpret that on a day-to-day basis?"
Marcus Durham, a senior cadet at the academy and the deputy Wing Honor Board chairman who leads a lot of the honor lessons, reinforces the philosophy that it is the spirit of the code they want students to master. "After we've told [cadets] this is the letter of the code, these are the precepts...we try to teach them, okay, this is what we tell you not to do, but this is what you should be doing," he explains. "So instead of not lying, stealing, cheating, tolerating, we say be honest, be respectful, be fair, support each other. You know, duty first. And we tell them that, you know, hey, if you're living by the positive principles of the code, you're living under the spirit of the code, because you're always trying to do the right thing. If you're trying to follow the letter of the code, you're always trying to get around things."
Does that mean the code will be applied more strictly in light of recent events? "No matter what procedure you're trying to implement, no matter what environment you're trying to operate in, if you don't have people who have a sense of right and wrong, if you don't have men and women of strong character who have a sense of honor, no procedure will work," Brigadier General Weida says. "So you could say, I think, in a very real sense, that the honor code underpins everything we do here, and the honor code underpins the Agenda for Change, and the Agenda for Change will not be effective if we don't have honorable men and women implementing that Agenda for Change."
The academy offers extensive honor education through its Center for Character Development, which was formed after a rash of rape and sexual assaults were reported in 1993. Cadets receive approximately 254 hours of honor-related instruction during basic training and take courses on it throughout the year, most of it provided by the 164 honor-committee cadets. In addition, upperclassmen are required to participate in character-enrichment seminars and to attend the annual National Character and Leadership Symposium.
But understanding what it means to be honorable and the implications of violating the code are very different from understanding how to mete out justice. "Like jurors in any criminal or civilian court, cadets on the honor board may have a tendency to look at the accused party like, 'They're here, so they must have done something.' They're told there's a presumption of innocence, but can anyone get over their biases? That's challenging in any forum, but it's especially challenging at the Air Force Academy," says Williams, who graduated from the University of Richmond law school in 1998 and worked as a prosecutor at Peterson Air Force Base for two years before joining the defense team at the academy. He left the academy in February after his four-year Air Force commitment ended, and has since gone into private practice in Colorado Springs.
"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."
Despite finding many faults with the honor system, the General Accounting Office didn't recommend any changes in its 1995 report. Four years later, another scandal erupted and another report was issued. The same results were found.
In 1999, a professor twice accused cadet Juan Nieves of lying, and a Wing Honor Board twice exonerated him. But the academy later kicked him out for poor academic performance, which Nieves appealed, saying his grades dropped because he had to spend so much time fighting false honor allegations. The secretary reinstated Nieves in January 2000 and called for a review of the academy's disenrollment procedures; the Air Force chief of staff later assembled a task force to investigate the "climate" of the AFA honor system. The voluminous document that resulted in August 2001 -- known simply as the Carns report, after Michael Carns, the retired Air Force general who led the task force -- identified the same problems as the GAO review.
"While the climate of honor and the corresponding importance of the Honor Code continue to be outwardly supported by the Cadet Wing, confidence in the Air Force Academy Honor Code has seriously declined," stated the report, which was based on interviews with 179 cadets, faculty and staff. "This loss of confidence is rooted in cadet problems with the Honor Code's non-toleration clause and the Honor System's presumptive sanction of disenrollment."
Retired Brigadier General Marcos Kinevan, who headed the academy's law department from 1967 to 1988, has grave concerns about diminished trust in the honor system. "If you have cadets saying they wouldn't automatically turn someone in for violating the honor code, you're not going to have a code that means very much. The most important thing a graduate can take from the Air Force Academy is a sense of honor and integrity; everything else is secondary," says Kinevan, who still resides in Colorado Springs. "The crux of the honor system is that it depends on the cadets themselves. Unless you get 99.9 percent of them truly committed to it, it's in danger."
The task force did not recommend changing the disenrollment presumption, nor did it suggest removing the non-toleration clause. Instead, it determined that the biggest problem with the system is that the academy spends so much time holding seminars on honor that it's lost sight of the code's true mission: "The conclusion has been reached that the Center for Character Development remains overly concerned with maintaining its external image versus assessing, measuring, or evaluating the internal result of positive character development at the Academy." And so the task force's primary suggestion for the academy was to teach honor by using examples of real cases.
Although there are many such real cases now, no one is suggesting the academy abolish the honor system -- not even cadets who feel they've been hurt by it. But they do want reform. As Josh Moynihan says, "They just need to put a little common sense into it."
Read related stories in our Inside the Air Force Academy archive
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