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The Welch Whitewash: We Still Don’t Know What That Aug. 30 Nuclear Incident Was About

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Mon, 02/25/2008
Dave Lindorff

A new report on the August 30 incident in which six nuclear-armed advanced
cruise missiles were effectively “lost” for 36 hours, during which
time they were, against all regulations, flown in launch position mounted on
a pylon on the wing of a B-52H Stratofortress, from Minot AFB in North Dakota
across the continental US to Barksdale AFB in Louisiana, has left unanswered
some critical questions about the event.

Directed by retired Air Force Gen. Larry D. Welch, the task force’s Report
on the Unauthorized Movement of Nuclear Weapons
found plenty wrong with the
way the US military handles its nuclear weapons, but appears to have dealt lightly
with the specific incident that sparked the inquiry—only giving it a few
paragraphs.

According to the report, when nuclear-capable missiles are placed onto a pylon
assembly (in the case of the B-52, these pylons can hold six missiles), procedures
call for a clear distinction to be made as to whether they are armed with nuclear
weapons or with dud warheads. In the storage bunker, pylons with dud warheads
are supposed to be encircled with orange cones like those used by highway repair
crews, and placards announcing that the warheads are duds are supposed to be
hung on all four sides. This reportedly was not done, leaving no distinction
between one pylon containing six nuclear-armed missiles, and two others that
had missiles carrying nukes.

A second failure was in record keeping. According to regulations for handling
nuclear weapons, every step in moving a nuke requires written verification and
manual checking. When the weapons were taken from storage racks and installed
on the missiles, there should have been written records, including the serial
numbers of each warhead. When a breakout crew moved the nuclear-armed missiles
on the pylon and passed it to a convoy crew for removal from the storage bunker
to the airfield for mounting on the plane, there was supposed to be a visual
verification of the warheads by the convoy crew, and another written record
of the transfer of ownership. When the convoy crew handed over the pylon to
the crew chief for mounting on the plane, there was supposed to be another warhead
verification check by the crew chief and another written record. Finally, the
aircrew was required to verify the payload, warhead by warhead.

Reportedly, none of these steps were taken. In other words, there was a failure
to check the payloads of the missiles not just once but at every step of the
way—an astounding breakdown in controls and procedures, which at a minimum
suggests that the US nuclear arsenal is as vulnerable to theft, extortion and
nefarious misuse as those in the former Soviet Union or in Pakistan—not
a pleasant thought.

A third failure, more systemic, which was identified in this latest report,
was a general decline—even a breakdown—in the decades-long tradition
of high standards and professionalism in the US nuclear force itself. The Strategic
Air Command, which oversaw all nuclear equipment, has been eliminated, and command
and control of nuclear weapons have been integrated into the regular forces,
right down to the storage of nuclear devices themselves, which are now routinely
kept together with conventional warheads—a recipe for disaster not just
because of the kind of confusion that allegedly led to the Aug. 30 incident,
but also because of the possibility of accidents in which a non-nuclear device
could detonate, scattering nuclear debris. Furthermore, the report documents
that the nuclear force, once a prime career choice for advancement-minded military
professionals, has become a dumping ground for mediocrity—a place where
military personnel go to be forgotten. Pilots of B-52s, for example, no longer
even get nuclear certified—so unlikely is it that they will be called
upon to fly nuclear missions, the report states.

The report is a catalog of failure and ineptitude, and should lead to a complete
overhaul. But it is also failure itself.

This is because as disastrous as the picture it paints of America’s nuclear
forces and handling procedures may be, the report also ignores the big questions
that remain about the recent incident which led to the Welch investigation in
the first place. Primary among these questions is why, if all the various teams
that handled the six nuclear-tipped Advanced Cruise Missiles up at Minot, from
the guards and handlers in the storage bunker to the pilots, failed to note
that the warheads on the missiles were nukes, was the ground crew that went
out onto the tarmac to service the plane after it landed at Barksdale able to
spot them and identify them as nukes almost immediately upon arriving at the
plane?

After all, the personnel at Minot knew they were handling weapons in a bunker,
and coming from a bunker, that stored nuclear weapons, and so should have been
on alert to the possibility. The crew at Barksdale, however, had absolutely
no reason to expect nuclear weapons. Not only was the delivery of these cruise
missiles to Barksdale part of a long, on-going routine process of ferrying the
obsolete weapons in for decommissioning and destruction. In addition, for the
last 40 years, it has been against military rules to fly nuclear weapons over
domestic airspace except in specially outfitted military cargo planes. That
is to say, prior to this incident no B-52 or other bomber has carried a
nuclear weapon in launch position over US territory since 1967
!

Given that history, one has to assume that the warheads on those six missiles
on the pylon must have been literally screaming out that they were nukes, for
the ground crew to have noticed.

Surely Gen. Welch and his colleagues should have addressed the question of
why those Barksdale workers were so easily able to spot the “mistake”
while, allegedly, no one in the chain of possession of the weapons at Minot
managed to do it.

The position of the report was clearly, from the start, that this whole thing
was a mistake. That is to say, its conclusion was foreordained. But we should
know from the incredible, bald-faced lie about the reason for shooting down
a spy satellite last week—that it posed an environmental and health threat
because of a relatively small 1000 lb. fuel tank containing toxic hydrazine
fuel that allegedly could make it to earth and then pose a health threat—that
Pentagon explanations are often dishonest, or deliberately confusing. (Hyrdazine
is no more dangerous than many toxic chemicals, and for someone to seriously
be put at risk, he or she would have to walk up to the smoking tank after it
hit earth, and hang around the noxious vapors breathing them in for some time—something
few people would be likely to do. Moreover, the probability of an explosive
fuel tank making it through searing re-entry to ground without bursting and
releasing the material harmlessly in the upper atmosphere was always negligeable.
The explanation for the $60-million missile shot was clearly a cover-up of a
Pentagon scheme to test its space-warfare capability without having to admit
what it was doing.)

Could the Minot nuke incident have been something other than a mistake?

A careful reading of the Welch report—both what it says and what it fails
to say—has to leave that question unanswered.

Recall that back in August and September, the Bush/Cheney administration was,
as it is now, ratcheting up the talk about an attack on Iran over its nuclear
activities and over its alleged support for insurgent attacks on American troops
in Iraq. While the military top brass, as well as the secretary of defense are
known, for the most part, to oppose such plans, there certainly are some, particularly
within the Air Force, who have a higher opinion of the effectiveness of airpower,

Recall too that in the weeks and days prior to and immediately following the
Aug. 30 Minot nuke incident, no fewer than six airmen associated with Minot,
Barksdale and the B-52 fleet died either in vehicle accidents or alleged suicides.
One of the two suicides involved a Minot airman whose job was guarding the base’s
nuclear weapons storage facilities. The Welch report doesn’t even mention
this strange cluster of deaths—none of which has even been investigated
by the military, according to local police and medical examiners contacted.

Could someone at the top level of government—perhaps the Vice President,
who is particularly belligerent towards Iran—have attempted to set up
an alternative chain of command to “spring” a few unaccounted for
nukes for use in some kind of “false flag” or rogue operation that,
were it to succeed, could set a war against Iran in motion? Barksdale AFB, it
should be noted, bills itself as the main staging base for B-52s being sent
overseas for Middle East duty.

The way the Aug. 30 incident came to light–which was thanks to Air Force whistleblowers
who contacted a reporter at the Military Times newspaper publishing office—makes
such an idea seem at least plausible. Clearly, some uniformed personnel were
so upset at what happened that they were willing to risk their military careers
to go outside of the chain of command and alert the public in the only way they
knew how. Clearly too, they were so distrustful of their superiors, right on
up to the office of the Secretary of Defense, that they did not consider taking
their information to anyone within the Pentagon.

Maybe it’s asking too much to expect a retired general, tasked to investigate
this incident by the Secretary of Defense who himself was appointed by the White
House, to look into such a theory, which after all if true would represent an
act of treason. And yet, the failure of this report to at least explore the
idea makes it into something of a cover-up.

The obvious answer here is that Congress should be holding public hearings
into the incident, and asking these tough questions. Incredibly, this has not
happened. The Democratic-led Congress, here as in virtually every issue that
has come before it (with the exception of steroids in professional sports!),
has ducked its responsibility. In this case Congress has been content to let
Air Force officials, behind closed doors, offer them information about the incident—which
is a far cry from holding hearings where the officers would be grilled under
oath about what they know.

Given this gutless and irresponsible behavior by legislators who, I am sure,
would be holding high-profile hearings had the same kind of incident occurred
in Russia, China, or Pakistan, we are left having to hope that someone with
real knowledge of what happened at Minot will come forward and tell the story
to a reporter.

For the record, I’m ready and waiting, pen in hand…

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