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Later this month, the U.S. Air Force plans to release the results of its investigation into cheating. It focuses on officers who are in charge of the nation's nuclear missiles. News of the cheating broke earlier this year, but some, like Edward Warren, knew about it long before. He says as a young Air Force officer, one of his instructors took him aside.
EDWARD WARREN: He warned me about it. He said, this is going to happen. This is the culture there. And, I mean, I was repulsed. I thought, you know, this can't be. This is, you know, this is terrible.
SIEGEL: And Warren says he quickly learned why missile officers cheat. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel tells us his story and what it says about the scandal.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Edward Warren wanted to be a pilot in the Air Force - and he was going to be one, until a physical exam turned up a problem. He lacked depth perception.
WARREN: I probably would've been a little better at baseball if I'd known I had no depth perception, as a younger kid.
BRUMFIEL: Also, you can't fly in the Air Force without depth perception. So the commanders reassigned him to the nation's nuclear missile fields; hundreds of weapons in the middle of the country that are on alert right now, weapons that could kill millions in minutes. Almost by accident, he ended up with his finger on the button.
WARREN: There is no button. Sorry to disappoint the whole world. There is no button. It's keys and switches.
BRUMFIEL: Until a year ago, he and his deputy would drive out into the windswept plains of Wyoming to what looks like a little ranch house, but beneath it was a fortified nuclear bunker.
WARREN: Two seats to sit in front of the computer equipment. There's lots of communication equipment, racks of it. And then at one end, there's a toilet. On the other end, there's a bed.
BRUMFIEL: From the bunker, Warren and his second in command controlled 10 nuclear-tipped, intercontinental ballistic missiles. Their job came down to this: Wait for a launch order from the president of the United States. And if it ever came, launch those missiles fast.
WARREN: Very fast. The actual number is classified.
BRUMFIEL: This is a job where things are done by the book. And there really is a book - several, actually - filled with many hundreds of checklists; checklists for everything from launching a weapon to letting a maintenance crew into a missile silo, right down to getting lunch.
WARREN: Whatever you did, whatever action you were currently taking, you had to be open to the correct checklist.
BRUMFIEL: Did you guys have a favorite of just like the dumbest in the checklist?
WARREN: Well, the escape procedure. That was always a funny one. If we ever got nuked and had to dig our way out of the launch control center - assuming we survived - there was a checklist for doing that.
BRUMFIEL: This is where the tests come in. Missileers are constantly checked to make sure they know their checklists. To sit in the bunker, to be in charge of the weapons, you have to get better than 90 percent on every test. But Warren soon discovered the tests are used in another way. Remember, this is a job that everyone is supposed to be doing in exactly the same way, so tests became a way for the leadership to decide who got ahead.
WARREN: It was pretty obvious that if you wanted to succeed, if you wanted to move up, you had to meet that, you know, near perfection - you know, 100 percent average, as close as you possibly could to that - or you wouldn't get promoted.
BRUMFIEL: Young officers like Warren faced a choice.
WARREN: Take your lumps and not have much of a career, or join in with your fellow launch officers and help each other out. And that was what most people did.
BRUMFIEL: In other words, cheat. Warren says nearly everyone ended up doing it.
WARREN: Most of the time, what it really involved was just the senior launch officers looking out for the more junior launch officers, maybe checking their answers before the test got handed in and, you know, saying, hey, watch out for No. 5, or 11.
BRUMFIEL: Did you ever cheat?
WARREN: I did. You know, like I said, it was the cultural norm.
BRUMFIEL: I spoke to eight former missileers for this story, who served over decades. All but one admitted they had participated in some sort of cheating. Warren's double-checking variety was the most common. But others I spoke to did more, like hiding answers in uniforms, or just looking over the shoulder of the other guy. The 34 missile officers being investigated by the Air Force stand accused of trading answers in text messages.
But the officers I spoke to also said that even though missileers cheat, most really do know how to do their jobs. Every month, they're thrown into simulators and observed by instructors. There's no cheating, and they still get it right. And if they screw up a little, there are plenty of backups.
WARREN: Our systems are actually designed so that fallible operators can still be perfect at launching at the right targets, without having to be perfect at every little thing we do every single time.
BRUMFIEL: After he finished his tour, Edward Warren left the Air Force. He was proud of his service, but he was tired of having to cheat to get ahead. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James acknowledges there's a cultural problem and is looking into changes. The simplest, Warren says, would be to stop using test scores to determine promotions.
Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.
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