Tag Archives: Chuck Hagel

AP reporters discuss investigation into nuclear arsenal security lapses

WASHINGTON — Two journalists from The Associated Press say recent AP disclosures about personnel problems among the military personnel in charge of the U.S. U.S. nuclear arsenal say the stories raised questions about the Air Force’s commitment to mission.

Robert Burns, national security reporter from the AP, and Wendy Benjaminson, AP Washington assistant bureau chief, spoke at a Newseum panel discussion about Burns’ series of reports exposing systemic issues with the Air Force personnel managing America’s nuclear weapons, including burnout, disciplinary problems, allegations of drug use and cheating on proficiency tests.

Since May 2013, Burns has reported on numerous transgressions at the nuclear base that put the nation’s security at risk, including leaving a blast door open on two occasions, failing security tests and poor handling of the weapons, which have the capacity to cause massive amounts of destruction.

An unprecedented 17 people were initially decertified due to the problems, which strained the unit’s capabilities, Burns said. That number later rose to 34 decertified launch officers. The AP series resulted in Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordering a full investigation into the unit managing the missiles.

The series also exposed poor morale among those managing the missiles, which first came to light when Burns obtained an internal Air Force email last year. Much of the infrastructure related to the missiles and their capsules are out of date, having been first deployed in 1970, Burns said.

“The people who are doing these jobs are questioning whether the Air Force has a proper commitment to doing it, when they look at this stuff and say, ‘It’s so old. Why don’t you upgrade it?’” Burns said.

With the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the recent revelations of the National Security Agency collecting Americans’ phone records and other online data at the forefront of most people’s minds, the problems at the arsenal may not be getting the attention they deserve, Benjaminson said.

“America isn’t scared of nuclear weapons anymore,” she said. “Our children, grown and not grown, don’t even think of nuclear weapons. They’re something from an old movie.”

However, the recent appointment of a new secretary of the Air Force, Deborah Lee James, shows promise for resolving some of the issues plaguing the unit, Burns said.

“[James] called it a systemic problem, meaning not just an episodic, random problem,” he said. “It’s a problem that’s ingrained, it’s widespread, it’s real and we need to do something about it. And we never heard that from the Air Force until she said that.”

Pentagon to review “drone medal”

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Tuesday that the Department of Defense would review the newly created Distinguished Warfare Medal aimed at troops who pilot drones, which has drawn considerable criticism from veterans groups and members of Congress because the so-called “drone medal” would outrank combat honors such as the Purple Heart.

The “drone medal” was approved under Leon Panetta, Hagel’s predecessor at the Pentagon, to honor “extraordinary direct impacts on combat operations” without regard for the location of the recipient in relation to the combat operations. This means a drone operator who remotely conducts targeted strikes could be given the award without being in a combat zone.

After the announcement in December, followed by an increase in media attention in February, a number of veterans groups publicly opposed its position as a higher honor than some of the military’s most prestigious awards.

John Hamilton, the commander-in-chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, sent Hagel a letter outlining the group’s opposition to the rank of the new medal, calling for combat medals to be given priority.

“To create a new ‘war’ medal that doesn’t require physically serving in a war zone, and then to rank it above valor and injury medals that can only be earned in combat, has created a huge morale problem within the ranks,” Hamilton wrote in the letter, which was co-signed by representatives of 18 other national veterans associations.

The new medal also faced a backlash from members of Congress, including those who served overseas. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who has served in Afghanistan and Iraq, told The Huffington Post that he thinks a higher rank should be given to medals honoring those who could have died in battle.

“It’s still different if your lives are on the line. You got to differentiate and we’d like DOD to do that so I don’t have to do this,” Hunter said.

A bipartisan group of 22 senators also sent a letter to Hagel asking the Department of Defense to lower the rank of the medal.

“We adamantly oppose the decision to elevate this award above those earned in direct combat,” the letter said. “We maintain that heroism and personal courage in combat do not change from generation to generation, and should be held sacred and awarded accordingly.”

The Pentagon’s announcement that the medal would be reviewed was applauded by those who opposed the award’s placement, but Hamilton noted in his letter that it was not yet a “done deal” that the medal would be lowered in rank.

CNN reports that Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey has been charged with reviewing the medal and that his report is expected to be completed by early April.