Air Force Academy Paid Over $250K to Spy On Cadets, Faculty for ‘Extremism’

Bishop Garrison
U.S. Air Force, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

January 6 triggered a widespread movement within the Department of Defense to identify any “right-wing extremists” within the ranks. The Secretary of Defense ordered an “extremism down day,” and studies were commissioned to discover how deep “extremism” had rooted itself in the military.

Hundreds of thousands of uniformed service members and I sat through scenario-based extremism training. The training came with leading videos meant to discourage everything from blatant extremism to basic gun ownership.

Later, it would be discovered that there wasn’t a large swathe of military members hell-bent on tearing down the country they’d sworn to protect. However, that hasn’t stopped one of the military’s academies from investing in an anti-extremism digital monitoring program. Otherwise known as spying.

Vague by design

The United States Air Force Academy has purchased a contract to digitally monitor – spy on – cadets and faculty. The purpose of the program is to:

“…combat cadet conduct in digital mediums that has the potential to negatively impact culture and climate.”

Deputy Director of the Air Force Academy’s Center for Character & Leadership Development, Thomas Torkelson, said the monitoring program is part of a:

“…larger cultural concern at the Air Force Academy that is captured under a larger campaign.”

However, the definitions of “cultural concern” and “larger campaign” are unclear. This vague language allows for some possible creative use of the monitoring system.

The fear is that a digital monitoring campaign like this one could expand outside the goal of “extremism”. It could even expand outside the walls of the Academy itself. And of course, the definition of “extremism” will expand to pedestrian views.

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Executive Director of Property of the People Ryan Shapiro explains:

“The program’s expansive scope reeks of calculated ambiguity. It appears custom-made to serve as a vehicle for the policing of dissent, not just of military personnel but also the broader public.”

According to the Academy, this program is meant to help mold and educate the future military leaders of the DOD.

Character building?

Mr. Torkelson insists there is nothing to be worried about with a program meant to monitor cadet and faculty use of digital media. After all, he explains:

“The Academy’s mission is to develop leaders of character ready to serve their nation. It’s a character thread that we’re trying to educate them on – what’s the proper way to behave in an anonymous digital space – that’s it.”

So, what constitutes appropriate behavior in a digital space? What does the Academy consider “extreme” versus “acceptable” discourse on social media and other online environments for their future leaders?

One prominent ideology that the Air Force Academy embraces is the left-wing gender ideology. This month, the Academy showcased transgender activist Lieutenant Colonel Bree Fram at the National Character and Leadership Symposium.

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When asked about the repercussions if a service member refers to a transgender service member by their biological pronoun, a spokesman for the Academy said:

“Intentional misgendering of an individual may be considered harassment or discrimination under our Equal Opportunity policies.”

One has to wonder if cadets or faculty whose religious or scientific beliefs don’t align with the transgender movement would be considered “extremists.”

Taking sides

The DOD commissioned the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) to investigate extremism’s prevalence in the military ranks. The report filed by the IDA concluded:

“Racism and sexism continue to be problems in the military, but only a handful of violent extremists have been identified in the military ranks.”

In fact, the IDA found fewer than 100 substantiated cases of violent extremism per year in the military. On the other hand, the statements made by one of the military’s most revered leaders indicate some disturbing undertones.

At the leadership symposium this month, Lt. Col. Fram said:

“While I don’t have a crystal ball, I can look out and say, ‘Well, either next year things will be great or I will be fighting for my ability to continue serving.”

Clearly referencing the upcoming presidential election, this statement was made not just by a military member at some conference but by a commissioned officer wearing the uniform of the United States endorsing one presidential candidate over another. To put it another way, this was a commissioned military officer advocating for one political party over the other to not just be in charge of the White House but hold the seat of Commander-in-Chief.

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The irony

The most shocking aspect of this purchase of a digital monitoring tool at the Academy is that experts in extremism who consulted with the DOD were surprised by it. Bishop Garrison, who was a member of the Pentagon’s working group on extremism, said of the program:

“This is not something we covered, and it’s not something I’ve ever heard about happening in the military. I think this will need to be thoroughly reviewed because it has the potential to be a Fourth Amendment issue and may potentially infringe on key privacy protections.”

Policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Matthew Guariglia, echoed Mr. Garrison’s concerns, stating:

“The concern here, as always, is mission creep – the idea that a program designed to find serious threats might be used to penalize people for their beliefs, associations, or creative expression.”

All Americans should ask themselves: How long will it be before these same measures are taken against the public at large? The military has long been a stepping stone for policies and initiatives that are later implemented nationwide.

I’ll leave you with this final note. At a DOD pride event in 2022, Lt. Col. Fram said this:

“Remember that we mark Pride not beginning with a celebration, but with a riot.”

To think the digital monitoring program meant to root out extremism was born out of a riot, too. Some riots are meant to be celebrated by the DOD, while others are used as tools to stifle individual freedoms.

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USAF Retired, Bronze Star recipient, outspoken veteran advocate. Hot mess mom to two monsters and wife to equal parts... More about Kathleen J. Anderson

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