Air Force Press Deception. Deliberate deception of the public to prevent veterans' disability claims.
In June 2010, eighteen multi-engine Air Force transports were shredded, and then smelted, ridding the military of one of its last legacies of the Vietnam War use of Agent Orange.
Years of plans for this destruction of eighteen Fairchild UC-123K cargo planes were firmed up in 2009. Included in those plans were suggestions from the Office of Secretary of Defense Senior Consultant emphasizing the need for minimal public attention. Agent Orange, dioxin, TCDD, Operation Ranch Hand are still attention-grabbing words of great concern to the public, and especially, veterans.
Hill AFB Public Affairs cooperated with leaders at Davis-Monthan AFB in creating the overall plan, which included a unique example of dishonest, unethical public deception. Focused on minimizing public awareness of the destruction process but aware absence of the aircraft might be noticed, the Air Force crafted a press release. As the consultant recommended, the press release was to be readied in the event of inquiries.
But it was to be a press release not released. And in its creative, but misleading wordsmithing, it remains as much a deception of the press and the public as was failure to distribute the document a deception. In two areas, therefore, it not only violated Air Force regulations governing public affairs, but violated the public trust.
Were there laws broken? Probably not, although EPA should look into some actions. It turns out that the Executive Branch, even the president, has no constitutional obligation to speak the truth. However, most of us consider that part of his/her job description. And we certainly expect truthfulness from military leaders, whose only excuse for deception would be for reasons of security. Not embarrassment.
This entry will take a bit of patience for our readers...there is a great deal of background, all of it relevant. And like colors of painter's palette, the facts come together to form the complete picture. Please give it your patience as the full story comes into view.
The "colors' we'll use for form our picture of Air Force press deception, and Air Force violation of its own strict rules about honesty and openness. Upon those rules rest the public's trust and the trust of our press, and the trust of those wearing the uniform.
The issue begins with the C-123s stored at Davis-Monthan and growing awareness that decades were passing without resolution of the political and environmental problems associated with the warplanes everyone (generals, scientists, attorneys, political leaders) called "the Agent Orange airplanes."
In 2000, base employees filed a complaint with their union, worried about exposure to dioxin on the airplanes which had been moved into HAZMAT quarantine.
Before discussion of the particulars of the C-123 destruction deception, let’s look at what obligations the Air Force sets forth in its public affairs program. While the Executive Branch may not be constitutionally required to be truthful, the military accepts that responsibility...with reservations.
The Air Force regulation governing Public Affairs is AFI 35-101, “Public Affairs Responsibilities and Management.” There we see very interesting statements, including:
a. "The purpose of Air Force PA operations is to communicate timely, accurate, and
useful information.” "The Air Force’s credibility depends on two factors: maintaining professional integrity and communicating timely and truthful information to the public.”
b: "Achieve informed public support for the Air Force and joint operations.”
c. "Information is not withheld merely because it casts criticism on or causes embarrassment to the Air Force."
d. Department of Defense Principles of Information. DOD makes available timely and accurate information so that the public, Congress, and the media may assess and understand the
facts about national security and defense strategy.”
e. "A free flow of general and military information will be made available without
censorship or propaganda to the American public.” “Information is not classified or otherwise withheld from disclosure only to protect the government from criticism or embarrassment.”
f: The Air Force should provide the public with information on its major programs; they may require detailed PA planning and coordination within DOD and with other government agencies. The sole purpose of such an activity is to expedite the flow of information to the public. Propaganda has no place in DOD PA programs.”
g. Air Force Commanders: Ensure legally required community involvement in environmental issues is conducted in a thorough and timely manner.”
h: All Air Force Personnel: each person must strive to make sure public
contacts show the highest standards of conduct and reflect the Air Force’s core values of integrity first, service before self, and excellence.
In April 2010 the 75th ABW, Hill AFB, Utah prepared in advance a press release describing the destruction of the remaining C-123K/UC-123K aircraft at the Davis-Monthan AFB. Management of the information about this process was faulty and greatly harmed Air Force interests.
Throughout the period 2000-2010, intense concern was raised at different agencies, including the Office of Secretary of Defense, the Air Staff, the Air Force Surgeon General, the Air Force Office of Environmental Law, the Deputy Undersecretary of the Army, HQ Air Force Material Command and more.
The concern: dioxin contamination left on the aircraft from their Vietnam War service as Agent Orange spray aircraft in Operation Ranch Hand.
1993 seems to be the first time when tests were ordered on Patches, the Air Force Museum’s famous C-123, was tested before positioning inside the museum. It tested positive for dioxin…in the words of the Air Force toxicologists it was “heavily
|C-123K "Patches" at USAF Museum|
More tests and correspondence accumulate during the period 1994-2000 with the only concerns expressed being the disposal of the aircraft, safety of personnel at the Boneyard, whether Walt Disney films should be told that two of the C-123s they purchased for movie production were possibly contaminated, whether foreign governments should be informed that the aircraft transferred to them were contaminated, and similar correspondence.
No mention has ever been found of concern for the aircrews who flew these airplanes and had already been exposed, until 2013 when Air Force leaders reported the information had been withheld from the veterans "to prevent undue distress."
In 1996 AFMC’s Office of Environmental Law recommended the contamination be “kept within official channels”, a recommendation endorsed by the writer’s commander, the Director of the Office of Environmental Law.
In 2000 the Air Force joined with the General Services Administration in a court action to stop the contracted sale of some contaminated C123s. The federal judge took their sworn testimony of the aircraft being “heavily contaminated, extremely dangerous, extremely hazardous, extremely contaminated, danger to the public” and other descriptions, and ordered the sale terminated. (note: In 2012, faced with veterans' claims for exposure, the USAF reversed its opinion, saying the planes were actually no danger to the veterans.)
In 2009 the AMARG/AFMC moved towards disposal of the remaining 21 aircraft, but officials knew the planes couldn’t be buried as they were too toxic for a landfill. The recommendation of the Office of Secretary of Defense (OSD) Senior Consultant was to stop testing the aircraft immediately for toxicity…all four had tested positive (two significant and two trace, but any trace is unsafe) and his suggestion was that that result could be taken two ways:
First, because the first four tested had two that were contaminated, it could be inferred that “only two of the 21 aircraft were toxic."
Or worse, that “50% or more of the remaining aircraft were toxic.” As the testing was costly, base officials, acting on the OSD consultant's authority, opted to shred the entire fleet of C-123s, having discovered a loophole in EPA regulations that shredded metal could avoid being classified as toxic waste. EPA regulations were looked at carefully, due to a threatened $3,400,000,000 fine.
The OSD consultant also recommended that the public affairs at Hill and Davis-Monthan prepare for possible media inquiries. He mentioned an article from Orion Magazine, and discussed the worry that a media “storm” that might develop could inform Air Force Reservists who flew the airplanes between 1972-1982 that their dioxin-related illnesses might be brought to the VA for treatment.
Various drafts of a press release were offered, and the OSD consultant along with other officials “corrected” the drafts by eliminating words such as “Agent Orange”, “dioxin”, “contamination” and replacing them with words less likely to alarm the public. Agent Orange and dioxin and contamination were replaced with “herbicide” and “aged Vietnam-era airplanes no longer flown.”
The consultant's words...his agenda formed the Air Force press release:
The consultant's words...his agenda formed the Air Force press release:
The question of adverse publicity related to additional sampling or the immediate destruction of the aircraft is important to address. Clearly the Public Affairs Office needs to be involved in either course of action. The longer this issue remains unresolved, the greater the likelihood of outside press reporting on yet another “Agent Orange Controversy”. I recommend the IMMEDIATE DESTRUCTION OF ALL THE UC-123K AIRCRAFT. Public Affairs should prepare a news release in the event that there is a press inquiry. The key issues to emphasize in a press release are “that these old and obsolete aircraft sprayed defoliants in Vietnam 40 years ago”, “they were retired to Davis-Monthan AFB many years ago”, and “that recent analytical data from sampling a representative number of the aircraft indicated that only negligible levels of contamination could be detected.” Thus, “they were destroyed in an approved method used for the destruction of all obsolete aircraft at Davis-Monthan AFB.”
The last part of the statements was clearly deceptive, given the volumes of Air Force memos about companies desperate to purchase the valuable engines and propellers, and museums which wanted them, and private buyers who wanted them so desperately they unsuccessfully sued in federal court to try to force a sale. And lost, because the planes were shown to be dangerously toxic.
The final version of the UC-123’s story was approved by the necessary authorities at the 75th Air Base Wing. It was not distributed, but held in case of media inquiry. This was a further element of the effort to minimize public awareness of the true story of the event.
Perhaps no lies were told. But there were, indeed, pages of prevarication. Mistruths were constructed to build a story which really had nothing to do with the real news of the event…dioxin contaminated aircraft. Nobody at the 75th ABW PA shop inquired of the managers of the event about the Air Force Reserve aircrews which had been exposed to dioxin on their airplanes for a full decade. Instead, the public affairs officers bent without objection, indeed, apparently with eager willingness, and in complete disregard for Air Force Instruction 35-101, to construct a press release to deceive the media and the public, as well as the Air Force Reservists beginning to wonder why they have cancer, heart disease, acute peripheral neuropathy, ALS, and other dioxin-related illnesses.
A careful reader will note a possibly inappropriate use of a business title implying official actions within and by the Office of Secretary of Defense. That particular consultant was described in several documents from HQ AFMC and the 75th Air Base Wing as Agent Orange “Senior Consultant to the Office of Secretary of Defense.”
Later, in an interview with Steve Vogel of the Washington Post, the consultant, Dr. Al Young, said he was acting privately in his work overseeing the C-123 destruction.
This person's attitudes and reactions to Reserve Component aircrews are a specific concern. In his 26 June 2009 position paper regarding the need for speedy destruction of the dioxin-contaminated aircraft, the OSD consultant mentions the media “storm” which might attend the operation and cause aircrews and maintenance workers with dioxin-related illnesses to seek care at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Concerned with the visibility of this event, which he frequently wrote must be low key (and even congratulates base officials on concluding the operation with minimal public attention).
There has been an obvious careful selection of words to hide the actual event – a prevarication - destruction of dioxin-contaminated aircraft with a potential $3.4 billion dollar EPA or State of Arizona fine. This by presenting a completely misleading press release. There is an ethical standard in preparation of press releases, but it seems to have been ignored here in disregard for AFI 35-101.
The OSD consultant, a retired Air Force officer, in a 10 July 2011 message described the dioxin-exposed Air Force Reserve combat veteran aircrews as “trash haulers, freeloaders looking for a sympathetic Congressman for tax-free dollars.” This is an inappropriate perspective from a person editing Air Force press releases especially when he helps direct the misinformation concerning events vital to the C-123 veterans' health.
His perspective was certainly consistent. He was hired by the VA to report on the C-123 veterans' exposure concerns and in his November 2012 report he recommended against any recognition of their exposure or disability claims. His involvement is also unique: He helped develop Agent Orange as a tactical weapon while in the Air Force. He advised the AF on disposing the airplanes because of their toxicity, he expressed distain for the veterans who flew the warplanes, and then he recommended that, regardless of other scientific proofs (which he opted not to reference in his report) that the VA block the veterans' disability claims. Thus, he had a significant role in each key part of the C-123 contamination story.
Particular concern has been raised with the 12 February 2010 Staff Summary prepared by Mr. Dwight Eagle of the 505th. He noted the OSD consultant’s suggestion that although the UC-123K was principally used to spray Agent Orange, because some of them sometimes sprayed other liquids or conducted other missions, it could thus be described in terms of those missions, rather than the Agent Orange-Ranch Hand missions which were the principal employment for the airplane. Cleverly, the consultant had “clarified that the low levels of contamination are not necessarily attributed to Agent Orange, since not all aircraft were used in defoliant operations. Therefore, according to Dr. Young, the aircraft disposal does not have to be publicly announced as portraying or relating to Agent Orange.”
The Air Force Academy Cadet Honor Code Handbook, and other military volumes dealing with honor, considers this press release word-twisting to be quibbling, evasive, and incomplete…a lie constructed from half-truths, and dishonorable. It is perhaps not in keeping with the requirements of the State of Arizona or the Environmental Protection Agency’s rules and regulations regarding hazardous waste storage and their threatened $3.4 billion fine. The work product of the 75th ABW was not public affairs. It was an exercise in prevarication and public deception.
What was the news? The destruction of Agent Orange spray airplanes. And that was precisely the news to be obscured, twisted, avoided.
Today, thanks to many media reports, this story has changed quite a bit from what it could have been, and should have been – the simple “destruction of Agent Orange contaminated aircraft in an environmentally responsible way” to one where the news value is in the early attempts to keep the information in official channels, to one where Air Force public affairs abused the trust of the public and media by misleading them through a poorly-crafted and deceptive press release.
It morphed, and grew into a situation where public affairs at both Hill AFB and Davis-Monthan AFB failed to bring to the attention of leadership their military and civil service ethical responsibilities. And, although public affairs professionals with clear guidance provided by AFI 35-101, they failed to alert their leaders as to the negative impact of failing to notify aircrews who’d been exposed to the toxins and the health dangers this press release was designed to conceal from us, our families, the media and the public.