July 25, 2008 in Nation/World

Nuclear missile crew members fell asleep on duty

Snoozing airmen held outdated launch codes
By LOLITA C. BALDOR and JAMES MacPHERSON Associated Press
 

WASHINGTON – Three ballistic missile crew members in North Dakota fell asleep while holding classified launch code devices this month, triggering an investigation by military and National Security Agency experts, the Air Force said Thursday.

The probe found that the missile launch codes were outdated and remained secure at all times. But the July 12 incident comes on the heels of a series of missteps by the Air Force that had already put the service under intense 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 based at Minot Air Force Base, was serious enough, however, to prompt 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.

No one has been punished yet in the latest Minot incident involving sleeping crew members. A continuing review by Minot commanders will determine what, if any, actions will be taken against them.

Ford and other Air Force officials said the Minot-based crew had code devices that were no longer usable, since new codes had been installed in the missiles.

The three crew members, who are in the 91st Missile Wing, were in the missile alert facility about 70 miles from Minot. That facility includes crew rest areas and sits above the underground control center where the actual keys can be turned to launch the ballistic 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. Launch codes are part of the component, and the devices were described as large, metal boxes.

Ford said they were waiting to get back to base “and they fell asleep.”

It is not clear how long they were asleep.

There are periodic, regularly scheduled code changes, and there was a crew of four on duty. One of the crew members was not in the room with the other three at the time they fell asleep, the Air Force said.

The investigation concluded that the codes had remained secured in their containers, which have combination locks that can only be opened by the crew. The containers remained with the crew at all time, and the facility is guarded by armed security forces.

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