A bent spear demands clear answers

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By The Staff

The American public escaped unharmed from another transcendent feat of nuclear incompetence last month, when airmen at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota loaded a B-52 bomber with six cruise missiles armed with live nuclear weapons that flew the width of the country to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.

For 36 hours, the weapons were not reported missing. During that time, they were dubiously secured and definitely unbeknownst to a clueless crew who thought they were carrying a dummy batch of nukes.

"A weapons transfer error," it was called in a by-the-book piece of crisis management featuring top Air Force brass on Oct. 19, nearly two months later.

Aware of the grave situation, Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynn said he was making a "one-time" exception to the rule of neither confirming nor denying that nuclear weapons were involved.

He acknowledged that a series of apparent errors and procedural breakdowns "resulted in our improper and unauthorized transfer of six weapons."

In the press briefing that followed, Maj. Gen. Richard Y. Newton III, an assistant deputy chief of staff, announced that three commanders were relieved of command and four other "actions" were taken at the group and squadron level but not specified for privacy reasons.

Seventy airmen who were involved in the incident were reported to have been punished, although this number was not immediately available during the press conference.

At a time when the entire country is supposed to be scared witless about the possibility of a terrorist nuke, the Air Force virtually handed one over.

Not that this led to a nuclear incident, at least not that we know of or at least not yet.

But it was a significant incident. That's why it's called a "bent spear" - bowed but not broken. "Broken arrows," you will recall from the 1996 John Travolta film by that name, are the next level, in which a nuclear accident is involved.

Spokesman Reynolds stonewalled questions about why the armed nukes and the dummy nukes were kept in the same building; he repeated highly crafted answers on the level of security provided the armed B-52 as it sat overnight at Minot Air Force Base, and was not forthcoming about why the mistakes and failures kept happening.

Were the missiles fueled? Were they targeted? We don't know.

Too many questions were unanswered and too many questions were unasked to assume that we have anything but the foggiest notion of what happened and why.

Reporters didn't even inquire about the security at Barksdale, where the armed bomber sat for as long as nine hours before the problem was discovered and duly reported.

It appears that the Air Force tellingly failed to provide even an unclassified written version of their investigation.

One hopes it was excessive to think, as many bloggers immediately assumed, that these nukes were secretly intended for Iran, but bloggers didn't fabricate on their own the idea of an aggressive national policy capable of preemptive nuclear attack.

When all the information is controlled by the Air Force as the responsible institution which happens to be identical to the offending institution, and when that organization has only to wave the nuclear security card to avoid scrutiny, there is little reason to accept slick, exculpatory answers.

Congress has requested a top-to-bottom review of Department of Defense and Department of Energy nuclear procedures and a blue ribbon panel has been named to do the same for the Air Force itself.

As people in Los Alamos know from a rich history of safety and security transgressions, deeply rooted errors take more than a once-over wipe job to comprehend, much less begin to correct.

Such events lend themselves to embroidery and folklore, which is another reason to set them straight at once.

As in many other scandals that have afflicted the current administration, a slow, disconnected series of reviews can now be expected. But with previous experiences particularly in mind, the military should be aware that its credibility on consequential matters is in doubt.

The unquestioned assumption of military candor and integrity is no longer a universal given in American political life.

How long it will take to restore that essential bond depends immediately on how these investigations are handled.