Minot airmen fell asleep with classified nuke hardware
By Michael Hoffman and Kent Miller - Staff writers
Posted : Friday Jul 25, 2008 17:10:55 EDT
Three missile officers with the 91st Space Wing at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., fell asleep July 12 while holding a classified “code component” — a hardware device containing the codes needed to activate the control system for Minot’s intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The device, kept in a locked case, installs the codes that allow the missile launch control center to command the ICBMs in the missile silos. One piece of hardware is installed and the old one is removed, somewhat akin to changing hard drives in a computer.
Four officers had completed the process of changing the codes for the system underground in the launch control center and had returned topside to the large living center, which looks much like a ranch house inside and includes six bedrooms, a large kitchen and dining area, gym and a security control center for security forces airmen, according to Air Force officials.
While waiting for permission to bring the device back to base, the three officers with the code component in their possession fell asleep. The fourth officer was not present.
When they woke up, the officers reported the incident to their command, said Col. Dewey Ford, a Space Command spokesman. Representatives from U.S. Strategic Command, Space Command, the 91st Missile Wing at Minot, the 20th Air Force — headquartered at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., and the National Security Agency investigated the incident. They found that the missile launch codes were not compromised.
Ford called the incident a “procedural violation,” and emphasized that the code devices were no longer usable since the new codes had already been installed in the missiles. Ford said public safety was never at risk.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates was not notified.
“Because [the codes] were never compromised, [the Air Force] did not contact top levels of leadership,” Ford said. “The procedural error involved the fact that they fell asleep. If they had stayed awake, this would not have been an issue.”
Asked for comment about the incident, a Senate Armed Services Committee staffer said senators had not been informed.
During their confirmation hearing before the committee July 22, Michael Donley, who’s been nominated to become Air Force secretary, and Gen. Norton Schwartz, the nominee for chief of staff, said their top priority would be shoring up nuclear surety and restoring the country’s trust in the service’s ability to manage its nuclear weapons and mission. They did not mention the incident.
Minot has been ground zero in the ongoing crisis surrounding the Air Force’s inability to properly manage and secure its nuclear weapons.
Last August, airmen of Minot’s 5th Bomb Wing mistakenly loaded six nuclear warheads onto a B-52, which then flew to Barksdale Air Force Base, La. The Stratofortress then sat on the runway at Barksdale for more than 12 hours before anyone noticed that the bombs under its wing, which were supposed to be dummies, were in fact live nuclear weapons.
The 5th Bomb Wing subsequently failed its NSI in May because of failures to properly secure its nuclear stockpile.
The 91st Space Wing at Minot failed its limited nuclear surety inspection in January, also because of “critical safety and security” failures.
When inspection teams returned to Minot in May, they determined the wing had fixed its security flaws and passed the 91st.
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