Discipline Promised For The Dozens Of Cheating Missileers

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James discusses the Air Force's response to widespread cheating by nuclear missile operators on their monthly proficiency tests.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The Air Force did something stunning last week. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James announced that nine officers had been fired over the cheating scandal at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana. The nine had not themselves cheated on proficiency tests. The Air Force had investigated 100 officers for that and 79 will face some form of discipline as a result. The officers were held accountable for an organizational culture in which the cheating occurred.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James joins us from the Pentagon now. Welcome.

SECRETARY DEBORAH LEE JAMES: Thank you, Robert. It's great to be here.

SIEGEL: And let's start with an apparent contradiction in what the Air Force found. On the one hand, last week you acknowledged what you called some systemic issues in our missile community. And you said, I certainly picked up on spotty morale and micromanagement issues at all of the bases. But, at the same time, you found no hint of cheating anywhere else in the command, just at Malmstrom?

JAMES: Robert, that's correct. We took the investigation wherever the investigation led us. And the investigation did just lead us to those at Malmstrom. It did not expand beyond that one base. Had it done so, we certainly would have followed, but it simply did not.

With that said, I picked up on morale issues. I picked up on micromanagement issues at all bases. And that is what led me to believe that we had a systemic or, if you will, a cultural issue going on within our ICBM force.

SIEGEL: But just to be clear, an NPR reporter, one of my colleagues, was told by a former missile launch officer at F.E. Warren Air Force Basr in Wyoming, as well as by other former officers, I gather, cheating was common. They were told about it not just at Malmstrom. Has the Air Force investigated all those leads and confidently found nothing to support them?

JAMES: You know, I, too, have read in various media reports people who have said that cheating is widespread, particularly people who served years ago in the force. But, of course, what we're dealing with is we're dealing with evidence versus hearsay. And we had evidence which only led us to Malmstrom.

SIEGEL: In this case, the officer actually served just in the past few years. But you found nothing?

JAMES: We found nothing, that's correct.

SIEGEL: Why should there be any greater morale problem, as you understand it, in this particular wing of the Air Force than any other wing of the Air Force?

JAMES: I think morale has suffered for a number of reasons. We've had our nuclear mission in action for 50 years now. It has served us well. But with the end of the Cold War, officers openly speculate, gee, is this really an important mission going forward? So I think that's one thing.

I think a second thing is I did pick up within this force a degree of lack of empowerment that I had not seen elsewhere. So even for the smallest of decisions, these officers had to go to higher headquarters for decisions. And the third thing I picked up on is a punitive sort of culture within the ICBM force for even small infractions.

SIEGEL: Let's go with the first thing, though. Is this really a serious mission going forward? The ICBMs are one leg of the triad of the U.S. nuclear force, strategic bombers, submarines as well. Bombers and submarines have uses apart from delivering nuclear weapons in World War III. Does it really make any sense to maintain a force of intercontinental ballistic missiles, which would only be used in that eventuality?

JAMES: Yes, it does. I'm a firm believer in the triad. I think the triad has served us well in the past and it will continue to serve us well in the future precisely because of the flexible nature of all three legs. And so long as countries either have these weapons or are trying to develop these weapons of mass destruction, I think it's important that the United States maintain that triad and maintain it strongly.

SIEGEL: You say it's been successful because we haven't had World War III as the measure of its success. What's so important about missiles that we can't deal with submarine launch missiles equally well or with bombers?

JAMES: Well, it's the flexibility afforded by all three legs. And it's the survivability afforded by all three legs. And it's the power projection afforded by all three legs. And when it comes to these weapons of mass destruction, it's better to be safe and secure rather than to be sorry later. And so, we have firmly been behind that and I believe will remain so in the future.

SIEGEL: The cheating at Malmstrom Air Force Base, I gather, turned up during a drug investigation.

JAMES: That's correct.

SIEGEL: How would you describe the magnitude of the drug problem at these bases?

JAMES: So the drug investigation went beyond the missile community and it still is under investigation. My belief is that drug abuse is an American problem, it's an international problem. I don't have any evidence to suggest that we have a more serious problem than the rest of society. But when we do find these instances of drug abuse and drug culture, if you will, we have to clean them up. And that's what we're doing.

SIEGEL: And Secretary James, are you confident that the investigation that's taken place not just at Malmstrom, but at the other bases, have been absolutely as tough as possible and have gone beyond simply asking people, did you cheat on tests?

JAMES: I am confident that it was a full investigation, and there comes a point where you have to conclude an investigation and move forward. And so, whatever may have happened in the past - and again, I certainly have read all the news reports of people from the past who've said that this has happened - I can't say for certain whether this is true or not. But I can say for certain that in the future we're going to have a standard where this kind of cheating is simply not tolerated.

We're going to change the testing environment, the training environment. There are many things that we're going to do differently to empower people and make this a better working experience, which is reflective of the importance of the nuclear mission.

SIEGEL: Secretary James, thank you so very much for talking with us.

JAMES: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's secretary of the Air Force, Deborah Lee James, speaking with us from the Pentagon.

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