A group of elite Air Force pilots were shocked to find their careers in jeopardy after they sent a juvenile series of text message, featuring allusions to rap lyrics and Miley Cyrus songs, that their bosses said were evidence of drug abuse.
Now, the country's most senior Air Force officer has ordered an inquiry into how the pilots’ case was handled, and whether any legal processes and procedures were violated, The Daily Beast has learned.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh ordered the service’s inspector general to open an inquiry of the case, according to two individuals with direct knowledge of the general’s decision. An inquiry is a preliminary step before opening a more serious investigation, which is generally aimed at determining whether someone violated a specific rule or standard. Welsh has also ordered a separate investigation, known as a general officer review, that will address decision-making by senior officers at Laughlin Air Force Base, where the men are stationed.
According to people familiar with the general’s thinking, he is concerned that the pilots’ case may not have been handled according to proper investigation procedures and that the texts they sent, which did contain references to drug use, may have been dramatically misinterpreted. The men were issued letters of reprimand and suspended from flying, which could ruin their Air Force careers and make them less competitive for jobs as commercial pilots.
The commander at Laughlin, Col. Brian Hastings, who issued letters of reprimand to the pilots, will come in for particular scrutiny. Hastings accompanied Welsh to a meeting last week with two members of Congress who have taken up the pilots’ cases and attempted to defend his decision to punish the men.
As The Daily Beast previously reported, Hastings had tried to portray the men as part of an illicit drug network at Laughlin, one of the Air Force’s main flight training centers. The pilots say Hastings was confused and took their exchanges out of context.
In one exchange, a pilot joked about overdosing on ecstasy, but later explained that he merely meant to evoke memories from a trip to Las Vegas with his buddies and a running commentary about hedonistic partying. One message was signed #sorryimnotsorry, a well-worn Twitter hashtag that investigators, and Hastings, seem to have interpreted as a defiant confession.
Some of the pilots also texted lines from the Cyrus song “We Can’t Stop,” which became a sort of text motif after they heard it playing on the radio during the Vegas trip.
Cyrus sings: “So la da di da di/We like to party/Dancing with Molly/Doing whatever we want.”
Molly is a street name for ecstasy, and every time investigators found it in a text, they seemed to think the men were acknowledging getting high on pills.
In one exchange, a pilot texted a colleague that he should bring some food to grill for a cookout at the man’s house.
“You got the Molly,” the friend texted.
“You know what it is,” the host replied.
Based on that two-line exchange, the host pilot was accused of distributing ecstasy and eventually grounded.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Marine veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Air Force veteran, who met with Welsh last week had previously asked him why the pilots were given what they called “excessive punishment” based solely on text messages that showed “no evidence of drug use” and were clearly joking in nature.
The congressmen had also asked on what legal grounds the Air Force confiscated and searched the men’s personal cellphones, as well as why the service used so-called non-judicial punishments that have deprived some of the men from a public hearing where they might exonerate themselves.
“At this time it is our firm belief that the Air Force had no grounds to proceed with the charges against the pilots involved,” the congressmen wrote to Welsh prior to their meeting. “The Air Force may not like showboating of any kind, even among its pilots, but to think that could be considered criminal, especially in the absence of evidence that a crime occurred, severely undermines the integrity of the Air Force’s investigation process.”
The inspector general inquiry is expected to take 30 days to complete, and the general officer review will be finished in two weeks.
"Good order and discipline are fundamental to a successful fighting force," Lt Col. Christopher Karns, an Air Force spokesman, told The Daily Beast. "Commanders are expected to hold members accountable for their actions, while ensuring due process and equitable treatment are appropriately applied in every case. Commanders take this responsibility very seriously. An allegation of mistreatment is reviewed at multiple levels and the Laughlin cases are no exception."
When the inspector general inquiry is finished, Karns said, "a general officer will independently review the final adjudication and resulting outcome of each member's administrative case."