A scandal is brewing at the Air Force Academy. Racked by some huge sexual assault and drug incidents, the Air Force Academy allowed the Office of Special Investigations (OSI), an Air Force undercover law enforcement unit (similar to but not the equivalent of the Army’s CID or Navy’s NCIS) to develop informants among the cadets. Four have been identified but there could be dozens.

These cadets were pressured to become informants and then instructed to inform on fellow cadets who were involved in drug and sexual assault incidents. They were told that the cadet honor code, “We Will Not Lie, Steal Or Cheat, Nor Tolerate Among Us Anyone Who Does,” did not apply and were instructed to break cadet regulations to infiltrate or observe suspect cadets.

The cadets were promised that the OSI would protect them from any punishment for their actions, but they would need to maintain the strictest confidence telling no one of their involvement with OSI and destroying e-mails showing a link. They had to sign non-disclosure statements that threatened jail time for talking about their actions. The cadets eventually found themselves expelled for numerous regulation infractions. OSI did not protect them, and in fact abandoned them. The OSI and Air Force officials have refused to comment.

The Colorado Springs Gazette broke the story here.  It’s a great read and I highly recommend it, but this essay isn’t about the morality of using informants to find people breaking the law, it’s not about lying to informants, telling them to break the rules and then leaving them to hang. My focus is on the widespread misunderstanding of Academy honor codes and the failure of senior leaders to protect those codes. Both are cancers that will destroy organizations and potentially a service(s).

The OSI agents used the honor code to leverage the cadets in becoming informants. The fact is Academy honor codes aren’t there to enforce regulations or create environments of trust.  Academy honor codes don’t exist to eliminate lying, cheating or stealing. They exist to create LEADERS that don’t lie, cheat or steal and most importantly don’t accept it. They are a cornerstone system and tool to create leaders with integrity. Trust and cohesion are positive side effects. They are not the reason. Many organizations have these in abundance. They do not necessarily have honor codes. The code is there to help cadets develop a personal code of honor, living and enforcing standards that will serve them later as leaders.

Academy honor codes ESPECIALLY the toleration clause, teach cadets loyalty to the organization supecedes loyalty to each other. This is a FUNDAMENTAL requirement of officers who must command in such a manner where they do not tolerate dishonorable behavior in their organization and more importantly report it when they can’t fix it. Without this fundamental principle one will have dysfunctional organizations were the norm will be to take care of each other before the larger organization creating pockets where substandard behavior can flourish.

Contrary to popular belief, the most important part of honor codes is the toleration clause. Without a toleration clause, cadets are only responsible for their own behavior vs. enforcing a standard. Toleration clauses make cadets learn how to confront each other when someone is potentially not living up to a code they are supposed to be living. These are fundamental skills leaders must have, the ability to confront and the will to enforce.

“Non-toleration” is not equal to “ratting,” and it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of an honor code when one confuses the two. Simply put, if you have an organization where some don’t live the values, the code is worthless. So I taught it as you aren’t “ratting” on someone, you are enforcing the standard. That’s what leaders do and especially when it’s hard and not popular. It undermines honor codes and the whole moral development of cadets when “non-toleration” is equated to “ratting” or gets applied to the enforcement of regulations.

The honor code talks to lying, cheating, stealing and tolerating as a developmental tool. Using the code that’s most common sanction is expulsion and using it to enforce shoe shining dilutes the code and makes it an ineffective developmental tool.

What kind of leader lets OSI go nuts corrupting the key moral development system and tool at the Air Force Academy? There are three possible answers.

The first is a leader who does not understand the role of the Academy honor code in the development of leaders, nor the impact of creating a group of informants on the fabric of an organization whose job is to create Air Force leaders. This leader should not be in charge of an Academy.

Second, a leader who is ok with achieving results at any cost and then covering up those techniques with no concern for the impact of those decisions on his unit. Again, leaders with a “results at any cost” philosophy are probably not the leaders we want at a service Academy.

Thirdly, a leader at the Air Force’s premier leadership development organization who is uncomfortable or incapable of creating a climate where drug use and sexual assault aren’t acceptable standards of behavior, and where cadets report those incidents of their own free will.  A leader who can’t create a positive leadership environment given some of the best officers In the Air Force and some of the best college students is out of place heading and military academy.

As discussed, the Air Force Academy has some severe integrity, values and leadership issues. They are far from being the only one. Navy has also had some jaw dropping scandals itself, and while West Point hasn’t had the same types of huge scandals, the numbers are far from comforting. The service academies are microcosms of the military, but they are the institutions where the core values for each branches’ officers are enshrined and many of the same issues plague the larger force. The problem is, by applying band aides or solutions that contradict basic service values, we risk enshrining approaches that are morally wrong and will eventually bring forth a harvest that will destroy our military.

(The author is a USMA graduate who served four years as a tactical officer at West Point. “Tacs” are the cadet’s primary leader developer. Besides managing each cadet’s military, physical and academic development, they also serve as primary instructors of the cadet honor code.)