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Incompetence or Cover-Up?

The Air Force Report on the Minot-Barksdale Nuclear Missile Flight

by DAVE LINDORFF


"It makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck."

–Pentagon official

There is something deeply disturbing about the Air Force’s official report on the Aug-29-30 "bent spear" incident that saw six nuclear warheads get mounted on six Advanced Cruise Missiles and improperly removed from a nuclear weapons storage bunker at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, then get improperly loaded on a B-52, and then get improperly flown to Barksdale AFB in Louisiana-a report that attributed the whole thing to a "mistake."

According to the Air Force report, some Air Force personnel mounted the warheads on the missiles (which are obsolete and slated for destruction), and another ground crew, allegedly not aware that the missiles were armed with nukes, moved them out and mounted them on a launch pylon on the B-52’s wing for a flight to Barksdale and eventual dismantling. Only on the ground at Barksdale did ground crew personnel spot the nukes according to the report. (Six other missiles with dummy warheads were mounted on a pylon on the other wing of the plane.)

The problem with this explanation for the first reported case of nukes being removed from a weapons bunker without authorization in 50 years of nuclear weapons, is that those warheads, and all nuclear warheads in the US stockpile, are supposedly protected against unauthorized transport or removal from bunkers by electronic antitheft systems-automated alarms similar to those used by department stores to prevent theft, and even anti-motion sensors that go off if a weapon is touched or approached without authorization.

While the Air Force report doesn’t mention any of this, what it means is that if weapons in a storage bunker are protected against unauthorized removal, someone-and actually at least two people, since it’s long been a basic part of nuclear security that every action involving a nuclear weapon has to be done by two people working in tandem-had to deliberately and consciously disable those alarms.

Since the Air Force report does not explain how this hurdle to unauthorized removal of the six nukes could have been surmounted by "mistake," the report has to be considered a whitewash, at best, or a cover-up.

That leaves us speculating about what actually happened, and about who might have authorized the removal of those nukes from storage, and why the Defense Department would be covering up the true story. We know that the loading of nuclear-armed missiles or bombs onto an American bomber has been barred since 1991, even for practice and training purposes. We know also that the carrying of nuclear weapons by bombers flying over US airspace has been banned for 40 years. So if the evidence suggests strongly that the removal of the nukes from the bunker was done intentionally and with some kind of authorization from higher authorities, then the loading of nukes onto the plane, and the flight of those nukes to Barksdale have to also be assumed to have been authorized.

This possibility has been dismissed out of hand by the Air Force and Defense Department. The very idea is, in fact, not even discussed in the Air force report released in mid-October.

Yet we are left with the unresolved question of how the weapons could have been moved out of the bunker accidentally.

The Air Force has not been forthcoming about the automated alarm protections on American nuclear weapons, refusing to confirm or deny that they even exist. But we can know that they are in place for several reasons. One is that since writing about this incident in the current edition of ("The Mystery of Minot," Oct. 24, 2007 ed.) and in several online venues, I have been contacted by several active-duty and retired military people who have assured me that such electronic protections are in place. A second is that an article in the Oct. 31 issue of the New York Times</a>, reporting on the early completion of a project by the National Nuclear Security Administration, to secure Russian nuclear weapons, said that the measures implemented at 25 classified sites on 12 Russian nuclear bases included "measures that have long been part of American efforts" to secure nuclear weapons, and that these included "alarm and motion detection systems," as well as "modern gates, guard houses and fighting positions, " and also "detectors for explosives, radiation and metal."

Ask yourselves, would American nuclear weapons be equipped with lesser security systems than those that the NNSA is providing for Russian weapons?

Of course not!

And yet we’re asked to believe that some low-ranking ground crew personnel at Minot AFB simply walked out of a nuclear weapons bunker with six nuclear armed Advanced Cruise Missiles, not knowing what they were carrying, and labored for eight hours to mount those missiles and their launch pylon on the wing of a B-52 strategic bomber without ever noticing that they were armed with nuclear weapons. We’re asked to believe that none of those electronic alarms and motion sensors built into the system went off during that whole process.

When I mentioned the automated alarm and motion sensors to Lt. Col. Jennifer Cassidy, a public affairs person at the Department of the Air Force, and asked her how the movement of the six nukes could have occurred without those alarms being disabled, she said, "It’s an intriguing question, and it makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck."

As it should.

So why isn’t it making the hair stand up on the back of the necks of members of Congress?

Incredibly, to date, there has been no demand for public hearings into this frightening incident.

Congress appears ready and willing to accept the Air Force whitewash at face value: It was an accident. It won’t happen again.

That is not good enough!

We need honest answers to some hard questions. Among them:

* Who disabled the alarm systems on those weapons and on the bunker itself?

* Who mounted six nuclear weapons on the noses of six cruise missiles and put those missiles onto a B-52 launch platform?

* Who authorized them to perform this operation?

* Who moved the armed weapons out of the Bunker at Minot AFB and mounted them on the wing of a B-52 bound for Barksdale AFB? (Barksdale, it should be noted, bills itself as the main staging base for B-52s being flown to the Middle East Theater.)

* Were the six missiles flyable? Were they fueled up and ready to fire, or were they not fueled at the time of the Minot-Barksdale flight?

* Was there targeting information in the missile’s guidance computers and if so, what were those targets?

* What happened to the three military whistleblowers who blew the whistle on this incident and reported it to a journalist at the newspaper Military Times?

* Why hasn’t the Air Force or the FBI investigated the 6-8 untimely deaths including three alleged suicides, one of a Minot weapons guard, one of an assistant defense secretary, and one of a captain in the super-secret Air Force Special Commando Group, as well as alleged fatal vehicle "accidents" involving four ground crew and B-52 pilots and crewmembers at Minot and Barksdale? Could any of this strange cluster of deaths have been related to the incident? The Air Force "investigation" didn’t even mention these incidents, and my investigation, reported in the Oct. 24 issue of the magazine American Conservative, found that none of the police investigators or medical examiners in those incidents had even been contacted by Air Force or other federal investigators.

The Secretary of Defense appears to have been upset about this incident. Secretary Robert Gates ordered an unprecedented stand-down of all air bases in mid-September to check out and account for the entire nuclear inventory, and a general was dispatched immediately to Minot after the discovery of the wayward nukes on August 30 to investigate what had happened. Following a subsequent Air Force investigation, 70 people at Minot and Barksdale AFBs were removed from their posts and decertified from handling nuclear weapons, including five officers, one of them the Minot base commander.

* But a base commander does not have the authority to order nuclear weapons to be loaded on a plane and flown. So who issued that order and why has no one at a senior level in Washington been sacked?

There is speculation that the order may have come via an alternate chain of command.

Vice President Dick Cheney is known to be pressing within the administration for a war with Iran, to be launched before the end President Bush’s second term of office. According to some reports, Cheney has even, on his own authority (or lack thereof), urged Israel to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, in hopes that Iran might retaliate, thus drawing the US into a war.

Could the nation’s war-mongering VP have used his neo-con contacts in the Defense Department or some of the Armageddon-believers in the Air Force to bypass the official chain of command and spring those nukes from their bunker?

Was there a plan to use one or more of those nukes-W80-1 warheads that can be calibrated to detonate with an explosive power ranging anywhere from 150 kilotons down to just 5 kilotons-against Iran? The Advanced Cruise Missile, a stealth weapon almost impossible to spot on radar, is designed to be launched from a remote location by a B-52, and then to fly close to the ground to its target, using terrain maps and GPS guidance. It is also designed to penetrate hardened sites, such as Iran’s nuclear processing and research facilities.

Or was there a plan for a so-called "false-flag incident, "where a small nuke-made to resemble a primitive weapon of the type a fledgling nuclear power might construct-might be detonated at a US target abroad, or even within the US?

These are terrible and terrifying questions to have to ask, but when you have six nuclear weapons go missing, when the military investigation into the incident is so clearly a whitewash or cover-up, and when you have a vice president who is openly pressing for an illegal war of aggression against a nation that poses no threat to the US, and who, in fact, appears to be conducting his own treacherous foreign policy behind the back of the president and the State Department, they are questions that must be asked, and that demand answers.

In a couple of weeks, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, is planning on calling for a Privilege of the House vote in Congress on moving his Cheney impeachment bill (H Res. 333) to a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee, where it has been stalled by House Democratic leaders since being filed last April 24. Such a hearing should demand answers from the vice president and his staff about his treasonous efforts to push the country into yet another war in the Middle East. It should also grill Air Force personnel about the true nature of the Minot nuclear incident.

Every member of the House of Representatives should have to take a stand on this issue.

The Democratic House leadership, under Speaker Nancy Pelosi, can be expected to try to table Kucinich’s privilege motion, which would prevent such a vote.

Americans should demand that Pelosi and other Democratic leaders let Kucinich’s privilege motion go forward, and should insist that every member of Congress put their position on the line. Every American should demand that their representative to Congress support the start of impeachment hearings on Vice President Cheney.

We need to know if the Vice President’s office was behind the flight of those six warheads.

We need to know in what other treasonous, conspiratorial actions the Vice President has been engaged in his unremitting effort to expand the war from Iraq and Afghanistan into Iran.

DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His book of CounterPunch columns titled "This Can’t be Happening!" is published by Common Courage Press. Lindorff’s newest book is "The Case for Impeachment",
co-authored by Barbara Olshansky.

He can be reached at: dlindorff@yahoo.com