WASHINGTON - Three ballistic missile crew members in North Dakota fell asleep while holding classified launch code devices this month, triggering a probe by military and National Security Agency experts, the Air Force said yesterday.
The probe found that the missile launch codes were not compromised, but the July 12 incident followed a series of missteps that had put the Air Force under scrutiny. "This was just a procedural violation that we investigated," said Air Force Col. Dewey Ford, a spokesman at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo. "We determined that there was no compromise."
The lapse, which involved a crew at Minot Air Force Base, prompted an investigation by the 91st Missile Wing, in conjunction with codes experts at the 20th Air Force, U.S. Strategic Command, and the National Security Agency.
And it delivers another blow to the beleaguered Air Force.
Last month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced a shake-up of the Air Force leadership, blaming them for failing to fully address a series of nuclear-related mishaps. At the time, Mr. Gates said his sackings of the Air Force secretary and chief of staff were based mainly on the blistering conclusions of an internal report on the mistaken shipment to Taiwan of four Air Force fusing devices for ballistic missile nuclear warheads.
He also linked the underlying causes of that slip-up to the August incident in which a B-52 bomber mistakenly was armed with six nuclear warheads and flown from Minot Air Force Base to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.
No one has yet to be punished in this latest Minot incident.
A continuing review by Minot commanders will determine what, if any, actions will be taken against the crew members.
Colonel Ford and other Air Force officials said the Minot-based crew had code devices that no longer were usable, since new codes had been put in the missiles.
The three crew members were in the missile alert facility about 70 miles from Minot. That facility includes crew rest areas and sits above the underground center where the actual keys can be turned to launch the missiles.
Officials said the three officers were behind locked doors and had with them the old code components, which are large classified devices that allow the crew to communicate with the missiles. The devices were described as large, metal boxes.
Colonel Ford said they were waiting to get back to base "and they fell asleep." It is not clear how long they were asleep.
The probe concluded the codes remained secured in their containers, which have combination locks that only can be opened by the crew. The containers remained with the crew at all times and the facility is guarded by armed security forces.