Air Force “Treason” Debacle Reveals Deeper Problems
By: Tony Carr | April 16, 2015
On January 10, Maj. Gen. James Post addressed participants in the Air Force’s annual Weapons and Tactics conference. Responding to a question about the future of the A-10, he made two remarks that ended up costing him his job. He first disclaimed that if later queried, he would deny the statement he was about to make. He then told the audience that anyone passing information to Congress about the capability of the A-10 was committing treason. His first remark got a chuckle from some audience members. His second remark froze the room into stone silence. Generals speak for the entire service, and to have their own Air Force applying such a demeaning word to them in even a vague sense shocked many in the 350-person crowd.
Several members of the audience reached out to me in the subsequent few days to share the comments. They were concerned, intimidated, and in some cases indignant. They did not feel free, for reasons made obvious by the tone and circumstances of Post’s comments, to challenge him or the Air Force directly. To give them a voice, I worked to corroborate their accounts and then made public what Post had reportedly said. I denounced his remarks and what I speculated he intended to achieve by making them.
I can’t recall ever hearing words more deserving of repudiation from an Air Force general officer. In the American lexicon, the word “treason” is something akin to hate speech. To someone serving in the nation’s defense, association with this word is repugnant.
As the story went viral in mainstream media accounts, senior officials at Air Force headquarters stood fast, making no public comment and taking no noticeable action. Lawmakers were not so sanguine, with many expressing grave concern about the incident and Sen. John McCain demanding an investigation. That investigation was eventually initiated on January 26th, and recently published its findings.
The investigating officer, a senior civil servant specializing in such inquiries, found by a preponderance of the evidence that Post’s words would have had a “chilling effect” on anyone contemplating contact with Congress to advocate for the A-10. Hence, his words were deemed unlawful restriction in violation of 10 U.S.C. §1034. The investigation found that Post’s position as Vice Commander of the Air Force’s premier warfighting command, combined with his choice of words in addressing a group of captains and majors, clearly had the effect of attempting to prevent members from communicating with Congress.
Witnesses interviewed for the investigation intimated that even if they didn’t feel restricted from contacting Congress, they expected that doing so would potentially damage or even jeopardize their careers. This fear is something Post understood (or should have understood) when he made his remarks. One witness remarked that “[i]f ever I went to Congress, I sure as heck would not tell anyone about it.”
This indicates a severely warped climate intolerant of the open exercise of basic of political rights, and it supports assertions I made about how Post’s comments should be interpreted in the context of an Air Force that has difficulty seeing itself as an extension of a free society.
Post’s firing has been heralded by some, and not without warrant. The investigation was relatively swift, and was made publicly available with minimal redaction. The reprimand likely signals the not distant end of Post’s career, and almost certainly disqualifies him for further advancement. This seems appropriate to most observers.
Together with his firing, these actions can be seen sending a strong message to airmen that curtailment of their right to confer with Congress won’t be tolerated. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who grilled Welsh about the incident in a late January hearing, noted appreciation for “the thorough investigation that the Air Force Inspector General conducted into Maj. Gen, Post’s comments.”
But not everyone is encouraged by this outcome, which could be seen as a pro forma effort by the Air Force to spare itself further political costs associated with its self-destructive and misleading but persistent campaign to retire the A-10, an effort keyed to the drive for more budgetary slop to continue overfeeding its most bloated program, the noticeably wanting F-35. Pierre Sprey, who helped design the A-10 and has been an outspoken critic of the Air Force’s campaign to prematurely retire it, believes the Air Force investigation was insufficient, and has called for a Department of Defense inquiry into the Air Force’s Inspector General.
But even to the considerable extent the Air Force’s action is to be lauded, it doesn’t satisfactorily conclude the treason debacle. Lurking within the investigation and the events leading to it are clues gesturing toward deep-set problems of senior leadership, institutional climate, and transparency. Unless these underlying issues are addressed, the treason debacle will be just another symptomatic stumble on the road to ruin rather than the turning point it could be.
The Role of the Chief of Staff
The timing and certain facts revealed in the investigation make it fair to question why Gen. Welsh didn’t respond differently when this issue was first brought to his attention.
Post made his comments on January 10th. After being shared on the evening of January 12th, the initial accounting of the incident went immediately viral and caught the notice of John McCain. Sometime shortly thereafter, McCain demanded an audience with Welsh to explain the matter, and this triggered Welsh to reach out to Post (through Carlisle) and ask for an explanation.
Here’s an excerpt from Post’s January 13th email to Welsh:
“And then I suggested that for those in uniform it would be disloyal to Senior leaders, some might say treason, to undermine the decisions that have already been made and briefed to Congress.”
So, according to the Air Force’s own investigation, the Chief of Staff was aware on January 13th that the 2-star Vice Commander of his premier warfighting command had raised the specter of treason in discouraging airmen from advocating against the service’s established budget position, and yet he chose not only to leave Post in his position, but to allow Post to finish out the rest of the ongoing conference where the troubling remarks had been made.
Has General Welsh, wittingly or unwittingly, created an unhealthy Air Force climate that undervalues the intellectual and political freedom of airmen?
This is a judgment call, to be sure. But it’s a judgment call Welsh should explain. It seems to stand at odds with his established expectation that his commanders not only follow the rules, but cultivate an environment of dignity and respect among teammates. Post’s explanation should probably have jarred Welsh to the realization that not only had his 2-star subordinate likely broken federal law, but he had certainly disrespected an auditorium full of airmen by implying, without evidence to support the claim, that some of them were culpable of an abhorrent betrayal of country.
Arguably, Welsh should have fired Post immediately, something government watchdogs urged. In the alternative, he could have directed Post to address the crowd again and clear up any lingering misunderstanding, something Post declined to do on his own accord. Perhaps more appropriately given the media coverage and its potentially chilling impact on the speech and civic participation of airmen across the force, Welsh himself could have promptly addressed the service and clarified in no uncertain terms that airmen were entitled unfettered access to Congress.
He did none of this, and it’s now fair to question those decisions.
It would be reasonable to accept that Welsh didn’t take any of these actions because he felt an investigation should be conducted first to establish whether Post’s admitted words were understood by the audience the way myself and others asserted they had been. It would be fair, except that Welsh did not, at any point, initiate an investigation. There’s no evidence he ever would have done so.
Only after McCain sent a letter to James on January 21st formally requesting an inquiry into the matter did the service agree to conduct one, and it was James rather than Welsh who responded to McCain’s office with assurance that the Inspector General (IG) would look into the incident.
If Welsh wasn’t going to investigate and had decided not to discipline Post, what, if anything, was he going to do? This question deserves — some would say demands — an answer.
The Role of Institutional Climate
Commanders are responsible for the tone they set and the climate they create in organizations. This idea is embraced by the Air Force. At the very top, tone setting is peculiarly important because it creates effects that span the entire service, coloring the attitudes and shaping the beliefs of hundreds of thousands of airmen.
Has General Welsh, wittingly or unwittingly, created an unhealthy Air Force climate that undervalues the intellectual and political freedom of airmen? The findings of the Post investigation make this a fair question, and something Welsh should address.
In the process of sharing Post’s remarks on January 12th, I wrote:
"This is a continuation of the party line that anyone who disagrees with CSAF’s choices is reacting emotionally. It’s a tactic to trivialize opponents, now complete with a traitor label heaped on top.”
Welsh has been labeling anyone who advocates in favor of keeping the A-10 “emotional” for a long time now, and this debacle evinces how his tactic of trivializing opponents has now been adopted and recklessly misapplied by subordinates seeking his approval. While it doesn’t excuse his conduct, the investigation makes clear that James Post was doing what he thought his Chief of Staff wanted.
Quoting the investigating officer:
“Air Force leadership made their decision on this issue, and Maj. Gen. Post believes in the need to support the Secretary and the Chief on this issue. Maj. Gen. Post spoke to the frustration at the senior level of what is felt by some to be efforts to undermine the Air Force on this issue. The evidence indicates that this frustration led to Maj. Gen. Post’s remarks.” [emphasis mine].
Additionally, one witness remarked that he believed Post “was conveying a strong backing of the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s position on the A-10 and the retirement of the A-10.”
It turns out that in his preamble to the mention of treason, Post first referred to the debate in favor of the A-10 as “emotional,” arguably barking at the sound of the dog whistle repeatedly actuated by Welsh over the previous months. Post’s subsequent insistence that “to do anything contrary to what the chief and secretary have directed would be disloyal” reinforces that he felt he was acting on their behalf.
When senior officers develop the idea that they can be breaking the law and simultaneously demonstrating utmost loyalty to their masters, we have reason to suspect a malignant culture has overtaken a proper regard for the law as ultimate governor of power. When the expression of personal views is equated with treason and senior officials feign concern in Congressional hearings while having taken no action to address the problem, we have reason to worry that the power wielded by institutional leaders on the nation’s behalf has become unmoored from reason. Whether the Air Force is a healthy functioning federal agency at the most basic level is now open to question, and should be explored by Congress.
Post made another very revealing statement in the investigation when he insisted that he “never said or meant to imply it was treason, disloyal, or disobedient to speak or testify when summoned by Congress.” [my emphasis].
This reveals one of two things. Either Post dodged an important question by cabining his response to include only those Congressional communications solicited by legislators, thereby preserving the notion that it could indeed be considered “treason, disloyal, or disobedient” to actively reach out to Congress and offer unsolicited input; or, Post’s long years sealed into the culture of the Air Force have given him the impression that service members can only legitimately communicate with Congress when summoned, which would be akin to considering airmen lesser-included citizens with an abridged version of political rights. Either revelation speaks unfavorable volumes about the climate of the institution Post thought he was representing.
Post isn’t the only airman to exhibit conduct symptomatic of a poorly tended Air Force climate. As first reported by Mandy Smithberger of the Project on Government Oversight and further developed by the Arizona Daily Independent, officers recently scrubbed key information from a briefing given to senior service leaders following the Air Force’s recent Close Air Support “Summit,” an otherwise unremarkable and substantively vapid exercise in political theater designed to reassure Congress.
An excerpt from Smithberger’s column details how Colonel James Meger
“briefed lower level joint representatives from the Army and the Marine Corps about the risks identified by the group … [including] the prediction that divestment of the A-10 would result in ‘significant capability and capacity gaps for the next ten to twelve years’ that would require maintaining legacy aircraft until the F-35A was fully operational. After the presentation, an Army civilian representative became concerned. The slides, he told Col. Meger, suggested that the operational dangers of divestment of the A-10 were much greater than had been previously portrayed by the Air Force.” [my emphasis].
Continuing, Smithberger notes that
“[f]ollowing the briefing, Col. Meger met with Lt. Gen. Tod D. Wolters, the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations for Air Force Headquarters. Notably, the slide presentation for general officers the next day stripped away any mention of A-10 divestment creating significant capability gaps.”
Meger’s attenuation of the briefing – speculatively at the urging or at least with the knowledge of Wolters – resulted in a final presentation to Welsh and other senior generals that touched on the concept of strategic risk in only glancing fashion, and did not make Welsh responsible for the knowledge that retiring the A-10 would create an estimated 10-12 year gap in Close Air Support capability. This was the most relevant finding of the entire “Summit,” and was censored from its findings.
This is demonstrable of a climate of corruption within which subordinate officers are reluctant to tell the truth when they know it conflicts with a senior leader’s predilections. If the environment is exerting coercive pressure on officers like Meger (by all accounts a superb Colonel) to tell their bosses what they think those bosses want to hear rather than truth necessary to make the right decisions and recommendations about the prioritization of scarce defense dollars, the service is in a moral and ethical tailspin and likely beyond it ability to self-correct. Last year’s cheating scandal in the missile community should have taught the Air Force the lessons of manufactured dishonesty. The A-10 issue is exposing that not enough was internalized from that painful experience.
In the wake of Post’s firing from his job at Air Combat Command, spokesman Captain A.J. Schrag explained to the Associated Press that:
“Given the fact the A-10 issue continues to be an emotional topic … All parties felt it would be best if [Post] continued to serve the Air Force in a different capacity.”
This is a jaw-dropping statement. Air Combat Command officially states that Post was removed not because he broke the law, or because an investigation proved he ran roughshod over the rights of his subordinates, or because his actions reflected poorly on the command and the service … but because the A-10 issue continues to be an emotional topic. This shows that even down to the Captain level, Welsh’s subordinates are noting the way he has marginalized and cheapened those who reasonably disagree with him about the A-10. They’re parroting his rhetoric. It also shows that he’s fostering an environment where political rationales are given perceptual dominance over the proper reasons for command action.
Notably, this wayward statement was identified to the Air Force and no action was taken to issue a correction or to respond. This might be because, as a source who spoke on the condition of anonymity told me, the words Schrag used were included in the official Public Affairs guidance issued by Air Force headquarters for the public rollout of IG’s findings.
If accurate, this portrays the service as wholly unrepentant for Post’s conduct, and it reinforces the idea of a politicized investigation designed as a sacrificial offering rather than a true course correcton.
The Role of (Non-)Transparency
It’s significant that the Air Force released, on its own accord, the IG’s investigation report. But this could be a deliberate attempt to mask how transparency amplified the severity of this crisis in the first place.
Gen. Welsh knew about Post’s remarks on January 13th and was aware those remarks had gained public prominence, but did not publicly address the issue. It wasn’t until two weeks later that Welsh repudiated the alleged comments when testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
In the interim, those in Post’s audience and those made aware of his comments through the media had no way of knowing that the Chief of Staff disapproved of the treason rant and the effect it potentially created. For many, this silence was taken as tacit service approval of the Post comments and thus, a standing warning against free expression about the A-10 or any other issue conflicting with established service positions. This setup enabled any restriction created by Post to have greater impact.
Ironically, had Welsh immediately and forcefully denounced the treason comments and reassured all involved that restriction was both unintended and unacceptable, this would have likely ameliorated any actual restrictive effect. This might have actually eliminated the need for an investigation and spared Post, who later claimed that he was simply attempting to encourage loyalty. Barring this, Welsh should have at least insisted that Post re-address the same crowd and clarify his remarks. This again would have minimized the potential for actual restriction, perhaps retiring the issue at a greatly discounted cost to the institution and its people.
In other words, refusing to set aside the culturally embedded preference for obstruction compounded every unfavorable element of an unfortunate situation. This exposes how the service’s Cold War era conservative, propaganda-driven communications model is utterly out of phase with the Information Age realities it faces as a public agency.
But despite these strong arguments for a different approach, not only did Gen. Welsh refuse to talk about the matter publicly as it unfolded, he has yet to squarely address it with airmen. This is dismaying to many of his officers and NCOs who believe he’ll continue to hemorrhage loyalty and credibility until he confronts and helps the service make sense of this matter.
[E]ven to the considerable extent the Air Force's action is to be lauded, it doesn't satisfactorily conclude the treason debacle.
It is rather astonishing that Welsh has not addressed airmen under these circumstances. The deputy of a major command has just been sacked after being publicly excoriated by members of Congress and found culpable of unlawful conduct in a department-level investigation. Relying on scripted press releases seem like shirking in a situation like this, touching as it does on the relationships between senior officers and the airmen they’re charged to lead. In moments like these, trust and confidence are either bolstered or destroyed. If for no other reason than to forcefully disavow Post’s use of integrity in a punchline , Welsh should lead the rank-and-file through a debrief of this situation.
Learning Points and Possible Next Steps
There are countless takeaways extractable from this chain of events and its gloomy aftermath. A few are worth visiting here.
First, the A-10 should be definitively removed from the chopping block, at least for the remainder of this budget cycle. Congress now knows that the political process was potentially compromised by restricted speech among A-10 advocates and experts. It can’t be sure it got all of the input essential for a decision, and no decision about removing an aircraft this important from the inventory should rest on anything less than an open and fulsome political process. More than that, if Congress were to retire the Warthog after what is widely regarded as an unclean debate, it would risk incentivizing similarly coercive political conduct in future budget cycles.
Second, Congress should dismiss completely the Air Force’s Close Air Support “Summit,” which we now know was conducted within a restricted environment and warped by pressure to manufacture politically aligned findings.
Finally, Secretary James should invite Congressional assistance in the conduct of an objective, external review of the climate created by Air Force senior leaders. This calamity demonstrates that generals are creating an environment hostile to the truth and misaligned with the system of laws and values the service exists to defend. This can’t be tolerated.
It is said that when a leader senses a problem in his organization, he should begin looking for the root cause starting at the edge of his own desk. While Gen. Welsh’s recent lamentation that his subordinate commanders aren’t communicating well undoubtedly carries some merit, he should also reconsider his own approach.
Every challenge is an opportunity, and the bigger the challenge, the greater the potential to turn it into something positive. This is a unique moment that will partly define Welsh’s legacy one way or another. By facing it high-aspect as only he can, the Chief of Staff could use this moment to illustrate the concepts of integrity, loyalty, civic participation, and constructive debate. He could help his people understand what these things are, and what they’re not.
This incident happened because the Air Force has adopted a tendency to silence opposing ideas by crushing them with the weight of formal authority. This is exactly wrong in almost any context, and inconsistent with a service heritage born of reasoned disagreement and sometimes contentious collaboration. For true loyalty to come about, leaders must persuade people, win arguments on the merits, and get buy-in. This re-states the timeless reality that informal authority is tenfold more effective than brute force.
It’s also the reason that quasi-fascist conduct will never thrive in the Air Force. Americans, especially those who fight for a living, don’t take kindly to bullying and are willing to stand for what they believe is right. Welsh shouldn’t want it any other way, and should ask himself if his iteration of the Air Force properly recognizes and champions these all-important ideals.
The sooner these notions are transmitted loud and clear from the very top, the better.
Tony Carr is a retired Air Force officer, defense reform advocate, and student at Harvard Law School, where he edits the National Security Journal. His work can be found at www.jqpublicblog.com.