Punished for honesty at the Naval Academy

Last Friday morning, President Barack Obama visited Annapolis to address roughly 1,000 Naval Academy midshipmen. Then he took his seat with other VIPs and the thousands in attendance and watched as the midshipmen, decked out in their pristine dress whites, graduated and took their oaths as commissioned officers. Every year, the event is magnificent.

With a ceremony of such grandeur, it should come as no surprise that, in their previous four years, the midshipmen were held to the highest standards of performance and conduct. As students at the Academy, midshipmen are subjects in an ongoing screening process to determine their fitness to lead as officers; throughout the process, a premium is placed on integrity. We should embrace this; after all, the taxpayers who foot the bill (for the school and the ceremony) deserve a strong return on their investment.


What might surprise you is one method by which the Naval Academy screens its midshipmen — and the perverse message this method sends to our future Navy and Marine Corps officers.

The life of midshipmen can be described as a four-year tryout. The Navy has countless "teams" — cryptologists, submariners, pilots, SEALs — and every Academy student is eventually selected by one of them. Some of the more exclusive teams, available to only the best students, require a top secret security clearance (nuclear submariner is one example). This means another round of tryouts — specifically, a polygraph examination. In that exam, which is used to evaluate an applicant's suitability to handle classified information, midshipmen are asked about past misconduct. If, by answering truthfully, they reveal misconduct that occurred while enrolled at the Academy, their admission can be used against them. In some cases it amounts to a ticket home.

Here's how it happens. A senior ranked in the top 5 percent in his class, both academically and in the more important "overall order of merit," qualifies for a top-flight job. So he shows up for his final tryout. There, he's asked a broad question about past drug use. He's been drilled for four years to be honest, so he responds that while back home after his freshmen year he tried marijuana. Academy leaders would commend his honesty — and then swiftly kick him out of the Academy for violating the Navy's "zero tolerance" policy on drug use. In almost every case, he'll get charged for the schooling he never completes. And this occurs almost every year. (Case specifics can't be discussed because of Privacy Act concerns.)

Some might say, "So what?" The Navy's zero tolerance policy is made explicit to midshipmen — and indeed all sailors and Marines — from the day they enter the service. Moreover, the use of polygraph screenings and their questions about drug use are perfectly legal, despite the "Catch-22" feel to it all.

They have a point. But there are dangerous side effects to this form of screening, the first manifestations of which are fair questions midshipmen invariably ask, such as: What about the mediocre student who never qualified for the exam and is therefore never asked the question? What about the student who qualified for the exam but, for fear of the zero tolerance policy, lied during it to keep the past buried? These questions were answered Friday; neither type of student is likely to receive the exclusive job, but both walked across the stage and took their oaths.

These considerations raise a larger question of utility: After almost four years of testing and screening, just how helpful is a broad question about past drug use when that question has the unintended consequence of encouraging mediocrity — or, worse, dishonesty?

At least one high-profile visitor to the Academy might conclude that it isn't. In January, Louis Freeh, former federal judge and FBI director (and Penn State scandal investigator) addressed midshipmen as keynote speaker at the Academy's annual Leadership Conference. He spoke of his first days as FBI director, when he learned of the FBI's hiring policy for those who earlier in their lives experimented with drugs. When his deputies informed him that past drug use was an absolute bar to hiring — and that applicants are asked about such use — the newly appointed director turned the question around on them.

"I looked at them and I said, 'Well, have any of you ever smoked marijuana?'" To his stunned deputies, he pressed further: "So we assume, don't we, that many of [our applicants] have smoked a joint at one point or another. But if they disclose [their drug use] we don't hire them. ... So we have a great policy here: The first act of application to be an FBI agent, in many cases, has to be predicated by a lie.'"

"I don't think that's a good policy. So I changed the policy."

This vignette previewed his message to the midshipmen: "We have to have policies that encourage people to be truthful and honest. If you start your career with a lie, it's not a good precedent — and not a good way to believe in what we're doing." In other words, the side effects get worse.

Academy leadership ought to consider the same message.

To be fair, there are differences between an FBI applicant and a midshipman. FBI applicants aren't party to an explicit agreement renouncing drug use; midshipmen are (they are also tested randomly throughout their careers). Furthermore, for disclosures made during the security clearance process, the Academy's hands are — at least presently — tied: The security clearance investigation and polygraph are not administered by the Academy but by the intelligence agency that grants the clearance. Moreover, the zero tolerance policy applies Navy-wide, rightfully void of an exception for college kids.

But Judge Freeh's message still rings true: policies — and the way they are administered — have consequences, and the unintended ones should cause us to reevaluate the intended ones. As it relates to questions about past misconduct, this should matter to the leaders of an institution whose mission is to "develop Midshipmen morally, mentally and physically and to imbue them with the highest ideals of duty, honor and loyalty. ..." Instead of serving this mission, our application of the zero tolerance policy might be encouraging midshipmen, in one of their last acts before becoming officers, to lie to keep their jobs.

Amid increasing scrutiny of military leadership (whether from its handling of sexual assault cases or from claims of general mediocrity at the top, like the one made in Thomas Ricks' bestseller "The Generals"), it should also matter to the taxpayers these future naval officers will ultimately serve. After all, we can draw a host of positive conclusions about the officer whose conduct slipped during college, who learned from the mistake, and who later came clean about it. But what exactly can we conclude about the officer who similarly slipped, but later lied to preserve a commission? Well, we don't know. We can't identify these individuals, except to say that some of them have undoubtedly taken the oath and are now naval officers — while their more honest counterparts are not. This might sound to some as though we're investing in the wrong stock.


Randall Leonard is an assistant professor in the Department of Leadership Ethics and Law at the United States Naval Academy. The views expressed here are his alone and do not represent those of the Naval Academy, the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense. His email is