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 Much of the infrastructure related to the missiles and their capsules are out of date, having been first deployed in 1970, Burns said.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.”