Gen. Mark A. Welsh III addresses the audience after being sworn in as the twentieth Air Force Chief of Staff during a ceremony at Joint Base Andrews, Md., Aug. 10, 2012. Prior to his new position, he was the commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christina Brownlow)

It all started out innocuously enough.  A small group of F-22 Raptor pilots stationed at Langley AFB, VA sent texts to each other containing ::gasp–horror Miley Cyrus lyrics and references to Miley Cyrus lyrics.

In cavalier and often profane exchanges, the four pilots, who are stationed at Laughlin Air Force base in Texas, one of the service’s main pilot training centers, boasted about using various drugs, including “molly,” or ecstasy, and marijuana.

Some of the pilots texted about a trip to Las Vegas in which Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop” became a sort of text motif after they heard it playing on the radio.

She sings: “So la da di da di/We like to party/Dancing with Molly/Doing whatever we want.”

 “Molly” became shorthand for the wild bro-weekend in Vegas, which one of the accused later swore was drug free. It also became a kind of inside joke to make fun of a group of girls the men ran into who they thought were high on drugs.

“I can’t imagine a scenario in which a group of Air Force officers would be texting about engaging in criminal acts if that’s what they actually had done,” one of the pilots later wrote his commanding officer. “Maybe I’m naive in this regard, but it makes no sense to me.”

How did it start?

The Air Force investigators who landed on the four pilots didn’t set out looking for drug dealers and pill poppers. Their initial target was a pilot instructor at Laughlin who was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a student.

Last summer, investigators seized the instructor’s cellphone looking for evidence of the relationship. They found drug-themed texts that he had sent to another pilot. That put the investigators on a new trial, which ended in the seizure of the four other pilots’ personal cellphones.

As a result, the officers were the recipients of non-judicial punishment. They received punitive letter of reprimand that says they were involved in the use of illegal drugs despite there being less than no evidence to support that claim. Their careers are over unless this is overturned. So they approached Congressman [mc_name name='[mc_name name=’Rep. Jimmy Duncan (R-TN)’ chamber=’house’ mcid=’D000533′ ] Hunter (R-CA)’ chamber=’house’ mcid=’H001048′ ] for aid. That got the Chief of Staff of the Air Force Mark Welsh involved. Unfortunately, instead of helping un-f*** a situation of military investigators running amok and a pussified commanding officer out to impress his bosses with how tough he was, General Welsh has imposed a thought-control regime on the Air Force that essentially strips away any semblance of a private sphere.

[Airmen] must avoid offensive and/or inappropriate behavior on social networking platforms and through other forms of communication that could bring discredit upon on [sic] the Air Force or you as a member of the Air Force, or that would otherwise be harmful to good order and discipline, respect for authority, unit cohesion, morale, mission accomplishment, or the trust and confidence that the public has in the United States Air Force.”

What does this mean in practical terms. First and foremost it means that your actions will be judged through the lens of what your boss says is correct. If you are found wanting then your career is over. How does this play out. Suppose you decide to text a friend that you think our policy in Syria is really stupid? How about you decide to join the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, even though homosexuality is fetishized more in the Air Force today than combat readiness? Could I retweet an article opposing homosexual marriage or even an article that shows co-ed Marine squads have only about 60% of the effectiveness of all-male squads? Can you complain about your boss to  friends? Can you register to vote as a Republican if your representative thinks Obama should be impeached (voting registration is public and this could imply you support impeachment which could hurt morale and harm good order and discipline)?

All of those actions clearly run afoul of Welsh’s guidance if your boss thinks they do. And you have damned little recourse to contest the outcome.

But never mind:

Airmen don’t have to worry if they’re doing what’s right.

But surely, you say, texting (or tweeting or forwarding or favoriting Tweets or sharing on Facebook) would be off limits because no one would have an excuse to look at your stuff. General Welsh even says:

Our personal computers or cell phones may not be searched without probable cause that a UCMJ or regulatory violation was committed, just like our civilian counterparts. If there is probable cause, then the Air Force requires a search authorization (aka “search warrant”) that can only be authorized by a military magistrate. All of our law enforcement and command actions are governed by and subject to review under our laws and regulations–all of which are based on our Constitution.

Not a good bet.

Probable cause operates differently in the military services than in civilian life, where it has long been held that an objective arbiter, interpositioned between law enforcement officials and ordinary citizens, must rule on probable cause claims. This preserves the impartiality of such judgments and avoids the conflict of interest that develops when government is permitted to judge the merits of its own arguments as to the validity and scope of a proposed warrant.

In the Air Force (and other services), there is no interpositioned arbiter. The chain of command decides what and who will be investigated and proposes warrants to itself. A member of the same chain of command — almost always a subordinate in the direct reporting chain of the convening authority sanctioning the investigation — “judges” and approves the warrant. The citizen, in this case an airman, has no real hope of an objective hearing on probable cause, because the warrant process has been captured by the chain of command, which has a strong interest in approving the warrants it seeks for itself.

Military magistrates, it should be added, are generally not judges, or even lawyers. Most have had zero or very minimal legal training. The magistrate in the Miley-Gate cases was a support officer whose performance report was the responsibility of the wing commander, Col. Brian Hastings, who by all accounts sponsored and steered the investigations now being reviewed for impropriety. The magistrate would have been telling his boss “no” had he declined to grant the warrants.

All of which is to say that when Gen. Welsh says “just like our civilian counterparts,” he’s leaving out enough reality that it renders his general proposition false.

When I was an infantry officer I obtained probable cause by telephoning the brigade’s Trial Counsel — that is, the JAG officer who prosecuted cases from my brigade — giving him my facts and he would give me authority for a search. Under this regime, your boss has to suspect that you have sent subversive text messages and he has access to your stuff.

What General Welsh has done here is make every statement uttered by any member of the Air Force, every email sent, every recorded Skype call, every text, every Tweet, and on and on the grounds for career-ending punishment.

In the military, it has long been recognized that you accept some loss of individual rights when you join. This is as it should be. The new guidance from General Welsh has simply eradicated any private area from the lives of anyone serving in the Air Force, and to the extent that the private lives of the spouses and family members are shared with members of the Air Force, those are gone, too.