James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Friday, September 14, 2007

Deadly missiles: not as sexy as Britney

Have we ever before seen a major news event disappear from public view so completely and so quickly? Or a story with such potential significance so widely ignored and minimized?

And what do we make of that?

I'm talking about the supposedly mistaken transport of either five or six missiles carrying nuclear warheads from Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana on Aug. 30. The Air Force said the warheads were being shipped for “decommissioning.”

The basic facts were reported by writer Michael Hoffman in an article Sept. 5 in the Army Times and Military Times:

A B-52 bomber “mistakenly” loaded with five nuclear warheads (later reported as six) flew from Minot to Barksdale. The nuclear warheads “should have been removed in Minot before being transported to Barksdale” according to three Air Force officers who tipped the reporter. They also said the missiles carrying the nukes were mounted on pylons on the bomber's wings – as are missiles which are to be fired.

Hoffman said the officers who gave him the facts asked not to be identified “because they were not authorized to discuss the incident.”

In fact, of course, no one was so authorized. The three officers appear to have acted as whistle blowers.

After Hoffman's report was published, USA Today and one or two other publications picked it up, and then over a few days, most large newspapers published a truncated version of the story – only a few paragraphs in most cases.

The Air Force, which generally stonewalls on such stories, quickly admitted that the nuclear weapons had been improperly transported and maintained that “the transfer was safely conducted and the weapons were in Air Force custody and control at all times.”

That quickness was surprising, given the service's history when caught in other mistakes, and has caused some observers to speculate that some high-level Air Force brass was happy that the story reached the public – perhaps because there was evil afoot that was blocked by the publicity.

Hoffman quoted Steve Fetter, a former Defense Department official who used to work on nuclear weapons policy, and Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, about the possibilities of nuclear detonation, radiation or plutonium leaks and the possibility of the warheads being swiped by terrorists or “rogue nations.” No danger of detonation or leaks, the experts said, and the risk of bad guys getting the nukes was “minimal.”

Did that reassurance cause you to go, “Whew!” and decide that all is well?

Me either.

Of course an investigation, led by Maj. Gen. Douglas Raaberg, director of Air and Space Operations at Air Combat Command Headquarters, was launched immediately “to find the cause of the mistake” and “figure out how it could have been prevented.”

Having been given such gasbag assurances, the country's corporate news outfits dropped the story as they would a road apple accidentally picked up when reaching for a dropped wallet. If you listened carefully at the right moment, you could probably have heard the collective murmur of “Thank God that's over” and the following happy shouts of “What's Britney up to?”

Never have so many inadequate journalists asked so few questions about an incident carrying so many possible national and world-wide implications.

Fortunately, some very bright bloggers and good reporters for on-line news operations have been asking the right questions, although they're not getting anything like adequate answers, and they reach only a tiny percentage of the population.

Here are some facts your local newspaper almost certainly didn't give you, and the major unanswered questions:

* Were five missiles with nuclear warheads transported to the Louisiana air base, or were there six? Hoffman originally said five, but later Air Force statements indicated it was six. Amid the stammering and stuttering, it came to appear that six nuclear missiles left the storage area in North Dakota, but only five arrived in Louisiana. I have been unable to find any resolution or explanation of that difference. The possibilities, if a nuclear warhead is missing, are numerous and in all cases terrible.

* Why were the missiles transported on bombers? There have been standing orders for 40 (forty) years against such flights over U.S. soil. The procedures, therefore, are pretty well established. They were instituted after several accidents in which nuclear bombs or rockets were dropped or involved in crashes. Standard procedure for many years has been to separate the warheads from missiles, disarm the warheads and only then move them on specially fitted transport planes. The transports are rigged to prevent, or at least minimize, radiation leaks in event of a crash.

Nuclear weapons are never to be transported while attached to missiles or on combat planes unless they are to be used in war. All movement of nuclear weapons must be approved by the commanding generals of major service commands, who must “authorize and approve transport modes and movement routes for nuclear weapons in their custody,” according to an article by Chuck Simpson on Rense.com.

* The Air Force said the warheads were being transported for “decommissioning.” If true, why were they flown to Barksdale in Louisiana, which is -- incidentally, of course -- a staging base for B-52s being sent to the Middle East? Several writers said that warheads to be disassembled normally are sent to Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, or to a base at Tucson, Arizona. They are within easy ground transport range of the the Pantex plant outside of Amarillo, Texas, where nuclear weapons are “decommissioned.”

* Some people familiar with the handling of nuclear weapons have said flatly that a mistake of the type claimed by the Air Force is not possible. Here's why:

--There is a carefully designed computer tracking system for nuclear weapons.

--Several ranking individuals must sign approvals before such weapons can be removed from their storage bunkers.

--Nuclear warheads carry distinctive red warning markings, which are entirely different from the immediately recognizable markings on non-nuclear practice warheads.

--Nuclear weapons are transported from storage bunkers to aircraft in caravans with guards armed with machine guns and rifles. At least two people, constantly within sight of each other, jointly control every step of the process, from removal from storage bunkers to loading on aircraft.

--In storage, nuclear weapons are connected to what are described as “sophisticated” alarm systems to prevent removal or tampering. Only a high ranking officer can order the alarm system to be turned off, which is necessary before weapons are removed from storage.

In sum, say those who've been part of the process, loading nuclear weapons into combat position on an aircraft by mistake simply isn't possible. The implication is that someone of sufficient rank authorized the loading of those missiles on the bomber.

Several angry bloggers suggested that Vice President Dick Cheney, whose “back door” chain of command over portions of the military has been widely reported, authorized the transport of the nuclear missiles. One who mentioned that possibility was Dave Lindorff, an investigative reporter and author, co-writer with Barbara Olshansky of the recent book “The Case for Impeachment: The Legal Argument for Removing President George W. Bush from Office.”

Such writers also noted that Cheney is the leading advocate for bombing Iran in the White House debate on that issue, and that some, if not all, among his coterie of neocons favor a nuclear attack, as reported even in some of the big corporate newspapers.

I also have seen some speculations about false-flag provocations, quite logically reasoned, but we won't go into that now.

Of course, any suggestion of vice presidential misconduct, or anything you or I might come up with as an explanation for the gaping holes in the official story, would amount to a conspiracy theory. And the uttering of the term “conspiracy theory” by anybody at all – general or janitor -- means in this country that the subject can no longer be mentioned except in ridicule.

Still, I can't help thinking it would be good if we had real, functioning news organizations in this country, as we once did. Back then, questions were asked when the official lies and cover-ups became obvious, and genuine answers were discovered with surprising frequency.

Someone may have stolen a nuke? Someone got around all of the safeguards in order to transport nuclear missiles in illegal fashion for unknown purpose? Congress could investigate and, if it demanded them, get to honest answers, but don't hold your breath.

Oh, well. Have you heard the latest about O.J. Simpson and the jewelry heist?