Nuclear weapons are so 1980s. So, apparently, so is the idea of keeping a close eye on them.
The widening cheating scandal at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana is the latest evidence of what looks like a combination of malaise and sloppiness among officers in charge of the Air Force’s intercontinental ballistic missiles. The cheating, it should be noted, was discovered in the course of an investigation of drug abuse among ICBM launch officers.
And it’s not just the Air Force. Last week, an elderly nun and two fellow pacifists were sentenced to prison for a spectacular 2012 break-in at the Department of Energy’s chief storage bunker for weapons-grade uranium at Oak Ridge, Tenn.
The details of this case are telling. Megan Rice, then 82, and her partners cut through three fences to reach the bunker, then found themselves with enough time to splash blood, string crime-scene tape, spray-paint slogans and hammer away at its wall. They all but set up tents and declared the place occupied.
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To get arrested, they reportedly had to walk up to a private guard and introduce themselves. How reassuring that tons of fissile uranium had been trusted to the vigilance of rent-a-cops.
The intrusion was a virtual replay of a 2009 incident in which five other pacifists — including Tacoma’s Bill Bichsel — cut their way through chain link fences at Kitsap Naval Base and reached a bunker where real live nuclear weapons were stored.
Lest memories fade, these are doomsday bombs. They are many times more powerful than the ones that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The end of the cold war, when people lay awake nights worrying about them, seems to have lulled some of their very custodians into complacency.
Another example: Last spring, launch officers at two separate missile bases were caught leaving open the blast doors designed to keep uninvited visitors (and nuclear blasts) out of their control rooms. In one case, an officer was waiting for someone to show up with some food.
When the Soviet Union was falling apart in the early 1990s, people were wringing their hands about warheads rattling around in the former Soviet states and the possibility that some might find their way into terrorist hands.
Perhaps we should have been just as worried about loose nukes under U.S. control. Hollywood thrillers might actually exaggerate the difficulty of making off with the ultimate terror weapon. All it might take is a guy on the inside and a few burglars with more upper body strength than an 82-year-old nun.
In response to the cheating scandal, which so far has snared 92 of 190 officers at Malmstrom, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James has been talking about “systemic problems” in the U.S. nuclear force. Expect the usual reviews, exhortations and shakeups.
A suggestion: If the Obama administration really wants to keep the bunker guards on their toes, just put Megan Rice and her friends back on the street.