Department of Defense Press Briefing on the Status of Air Force Investigations into Allegations of Illegal Drug Possession from the Pentagon, Jan. 15, 2014

Washington, DC—(ENEWSPF)—January 15, 2014. Presenters: Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark A. Welsh III

BRIGADIER GENERAL LES KODLICK:  Good afternoon.  I’m Les Kodlick, the director of public affairs.  Got a short briefing for you this afternoon, update on the nuclear enterprise.  We’ll follow the usual format.  You know, identify yourself, affiliation, a question, and a follow-up.  

Because it involves an ongoing — ongoing investigation, we’ll be somewhat limited in our ability to answer your questions.  The secretary and then the chief will both a have a statement, they’ll take your questions, and then when it comes about the appropriate time, I’ll signal we’ll take one more question, and then we’ll wrap it up from there.

Madam Secretary?

SECRETARY OF THE AIR FORCE DEBORAH LEE JAMES:  Yeah, thank you, and good afternoon, everyone.  I certainly very much appreciate you taking the time to meet with us today, especially on such short notice.  And on a personal level, I will tell you, still being very new in the job, I was hoping to meet you under different circumstances.  But I thought it was important, nonetheless, to get together today to talk about the issue at hand, because it is extremely important for the Air Force to be transparent with information, whether that information be good or not so good, and to do so quickly.  So it is in that spirit that we come before you. 

Now, many of you reported last week on the OSI investigation involving some of our airmen and illegal drug possession.  Well, it turns out that 3 of the 10 who were implicated in this drug investigation were from our Air Force Global Strike Command, which is the command where our ICBM missile forces reside.

Now, as part of that investigation, we discovered just a couple of days ago late in the weekend that 34 missile launch officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana were involved in the compromise of answers to a launch officer proficiency test.

Now, let me state this a different way:  There was cheating that took place with respect to this particular test.  Some officers did it.  Others apparently knew about it, and it appears that they did nothing, or at least not enough, to stop it or to report it.

Now, this is absolutely unacceptable behavior, and it is completely contrary to our core values in the Air Force.  And as everybody here knows, the number-one core value for us is integrity.  So I am profoundly disappointed in the airmen that were involved in this, and I have directed certain immediate corrective actions take place.  I’ll get to those corrective actions in just a moment.  I’ll tell you about some.  General Welsh will also tell you about some others.

But before I get to that, I want to address what certainly was the number-one issue for me when I first learned about this and, I believe, the number-one issue at hand.  And that is, I want all of you to know that based on everything I know today, I have great confidence in the security and the effectiveness of our ICBM force.  And very importantly, I want you to know that this was a failure of some of our airmen.  It was not a failure of the nuclear mission.

Now, let me tell you why I have this confidence.  It’s really several key reasons.  First of all, especially in the last few days that I have been intensively reviewing this situation, I have learned that the nuclear system is full of checks and balances.  It is full of checks and balances.  So one test, though this is serious, does not make or break an entire system.

Rather, there are multiple tests involved with the system.  There are outside inspections that take place on a regular basis.  And moreover, our top military leaders are very confident in the system, and General Welsh can elaborate on this further, if you like, in just a few minutes.

Second, all the members of the ICBM force will have been retested by the end of tomorrow on the test where the cheating appears to have occurred.  So by the end of tomorrow, the retest will have been completed for the entirety of the ICBM force.  So I’m disappointed, and I’m concerned, but I am confident in the security of the force.  So now let me get back to this concerned point, because this is very serious, and let me tell you what we’re going to do about it.

First, I’ve already mentioned to you that all of the officers will be retested by the close of business tomorrow.  So that’s very important, and that is in process.

Q:  All 34 or everybody in the entire force?

SEC. JAMES:  The entire ICBM force.  Second, I’ve directed that the OSI put full resources against this investigation so that we get to the bottom of exactly what happened, who was involved, and the extent of this so that we can hold people appropriately accountable for this.

Third, I already had it on my calendar to visit the ICBM forces early on, but I have moved that up, so I personally will be traveling out to visit Malmstrom, F.E. Warren in Wyoming, and Minot in North Dakota.  I’ll be doing this next week.  In addition, General Welsh will be going out there next week.  And Admiral Haney, the commander of Strategic Command, will also be visiting in the near term.  So all of us together will be assessing the leadership and working with those on the ground to make sure that we have an effective ICBM force, not only right now today, but also going forward into the future.

I did meet with Secretary Hagel this morning, told him about all of this, and of our corrective actions and our plan to follow up on this important mission.

Now, before I turn it over to General Welsh, I just want to reiterate once again that this was a failure of integrity on the part of some of our airmen.  It was not a failure of our nuclear mission.  And also, I want you to know that getting this right, getting the nuclear mission right and assuring that it is right is a top priority of mine.  It is for General Welsh, as well.

So, chief, with that, over to you.

GENERAL MARK WELSH:  Thanks, boss.

And thank you all for coming.  I share the secretary’s disappointment.  We have very high standards in the nuclear mission area and very high expectations for our nuclear force and the airmen who are in it.  And our people routinely exceed those standards and expectations.  So when some of them don’t, it gets our complete attention in a hurry.  There’s absolutely no excuse for the breach of integrity I’m about to describe.

Over this past weekend, as part of the illegal drug possession case that we shared information with you on last week, the Office of Special Investigation found evidence that a missile launch officer at the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base electronically shared the answers to missile — to monthly missile launch officer proficiency tests with 16 other officers.  We subsequently approached the entire missile crew force at Malmstrom, and 17 other officers self-admitted to at least being aware of material that had been shared.  We don’t yet know how or if each of those officers used that material, but we do know that none of them reported the incident to their leadership.

Regardless of an airman’s level of participation, cheating or tolerating others who cheat runs counter to everything we believe in as a service.  People at every level will be held accountable if and where appropriate.  

We’ve decertified all 34 officers involved.  They are restricted from missile crew duty.  Their security clearances have been suspended.  And the investigation into the level of their individual involvement will continue.  

Every missile crew member in our other two missile wings will be questioned about involvement in or knowledge of sharing test material.  This morning, the commander of Global Strike Command ordered a STRATCOM-validated proficiency test that the secretary mentioned be administered to all missile crew members and all three of our missile wings.  As of an hour ago, 100 people had completed that test — that’s about 20 percent of our missile crew force — 97 percent of them passed the test, and there were three failures.  That 97 percent pass rate matches our historical averages.  Testing of the entire crew force, as the boss said, will be completed by tomorrow afternoon, and we’ll make the results available.

The commander of Air Force Global Strike Command also directed that each of our missile wings receive a limited nuclear surety inspection focused on operation crew procedures in the near future.  The commander of United States Strategic Command has been in close touch with both me and the commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, and he will visit Global Strike Command headquarters next week to discuss this issue to reinforce his expectations to make it very clear to the commanders there his concerns in this particular case.

Secretary James and I will personally visit all of our missile bases that she mentioned next week to ensure that our airmen have no question about our expectations of those who perform this vital mission.  We’ll continue to work closely with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the commander of U.S. Strategic Command as this investigation unfolds.  And despite our mutual concern with the behaviors being investigated, Admiral Haney and I agree with the secretary and believe that the nuclear missile force remains ready and able to accomplish its mission.

As Secretary James mentioned, I think it’s important to echo that this is not about the compromise of nuclear weapons.  It’s about compromise of the integrity of some of our airmen.  It’s about a violation of that first core principle of integrity first.  Our actions as we move forward will be about making sure that every member of our Air Force understands that we will not accept or allow that type of behavior, that there is nothing more important to the nation than the integrity and the trustworthiness of the people who defend it and that anyone who doesn’t understand that should find another line of work.

We’d be happy to answer your questions.  Bob?

Q:  General, for either of you or both of you, has there ever been such a large en masse decertification of missiliers before?  And has there ever been evidence of cheating of this sort on such a scale in the past?  

And also, Madam Secretary, you in particular differentiated between saying this was a failure of integrity of individuals, not a failure of the mission.  You made a somewhat similar statement.  But isn’t the integrity of the force at the heart of the mission itself?  And how can you differentiate under that circumstance?  I don’t get that.

SEC. JAMES:  Do you want to start off, chief, and then I’ll come to the second question?

GEN. WELSH:  Certainly.  We do not know of an incident of this scale involving cheating in the missile force.  We are researching that now, Bob.  I don’t know the answer.  But we are not aware of it at this point in time.  So this is the largest one that we’re aware of.

Q:  (OFF-MIC) of the cheating involved or decertification for any reason?

GEN. WELSH:  Yeah, I — for any — I don’t know that there’s — I don’t know of any incident that has more than 34 people decertified at the same time.

Q:  Okay.  And the other question for either of you or (OFF-MIC)

GEN. WELSH:  (OFF-MIC) just take that.

SEC. JAMES:  So, certainly, people make up all of the missions of the Air Force.  With that said, what we know today is a finite number of people.  And I have confidence in the totality of the system, because of the other people who were there, the checks and balances which occur.

Again, the investigation is ongoing, and we hope to have more hopefully within the next few days to a week to report.

Q:  (OFF-MIC) suggest that you either know or you believe that this is not involving any other people?

SEC. JAMES:  I have no — I have — I have no evidence to suggest anything beyond what I’ve already explained.  But, again, the investigation is ongoing, and we will have updates.

Yes, ma’am?

Q:  Can you — so 34 out of how many people at this — the 34…


GEN. WELSH:  There are roughly 190 missile crew members at Malmstrom.

Q:  And then can you just sort of explain to us exactly what kind of things would be on this test, this monthly test? 

GEN. WELSH:  Sure.

Q:  And then — how was it — did they — did someone e-mailed the — the answers around?  Is that how it was electronically shared?

GEN. WELSH:  I believe it was a text message.

Q:  They text — it’s that short, that they were able to text all the answers and someone was able to…

GEN. WELSH:  I’m — the details need to stay with the investigation for now, as they try and pull the string on this.  But that’s how it was shared.

Q:  And then the test itself, what kind of…

GEN. WELSH:  The test itself is a monthly proficiency test intended to test the ability of each — the knowledge of each crew member to perform their standard operational duties as a member of the missile crew.

Q:  (OFF-MIC) 

GEN. WELSH:  To include the (inaudible)

Q:  And then can you — so 34 out of 190.  How is this impacting the rest of the — the people who are there as missiliers now?  Are they working extra shifts?  Is there any kind of practical daily impact that this decertification is having right now?

GEN. WELSH:  Yeah, they clearly have got to adjust their schedule over time to cover the missile shifts with 34 less crew members on board.  But there — but there are enough missile crew members certified at — at Malmstrom to be able to do that.

Q:  What rank are these people?

GEN. WELSH:  Jim, they’re second lieutenant to captain.

Q:  Were these — some of these 34 also among the three implicated in the drug case?  And on a broader level, there’s been this sort of continuing drip, drip, drip of news about the — the nuclear force, all of it bad.  So, I mean, what — what does it say about what’s happened to the sense of mission of people who man these land-based ICBMs?

SEC. JAMES:  So I’ll, again, speak as a new, fresh set of eyes and ears to — to the situation.  The events that occurred in the past, of course, were investigated, they were dealt with in the past.  Our top job is to deal with what we have before us today, which we’re — we are going to do, and we’re going to do so aggressively.

What it says to me is that, in any given organization, there are issues.  And just because there are issues with individuals, it does not mean that the entirety of the mission is compromised.  So, again, I come back to, I have confidence in that.  I will know personally a lot more after I have my visit next week, get to meet some of the people directly, and do that — do that assessment.

Q:  And were the — were the three also among the 34?

[Editor’s note for correction of the record:  the evidence would indicate that two of the three was involved or at least had access to the material that was shared.]


GEN. WELSH:  The — but — but, again, this investigation has just begun.  We — the details of this are not clear yet.  I would also add, if I could, to that question, Dave, something that I think is important.  In the last two months, we have replaced the commander of 20th Air Force, the commander of the three missile wings that all report to him, and the commander of Air Force Global Strike Command.  In the two months since they’ve arrived, which the — by the way, the indications are that this compromise that we’re aware of happened in the August-September timeframe. 

So since they have arrived, they have walked in the door with a very clear agenda and have been very energetically pursuing it to do a number of things, number one, to focus on, improve, and identify problems with the professional training, education and development of the crew force, morale and welfare of the people across the missile enterprise, not just the missile crew members, and identifying places where they can quickly make changes that improve our ability to command and control, as well as our ability to take care of the people in this command.

And so new squadron commander courses, new group commander orientation courses, things like that are already in the works.  There are a number of things they’ve been doing to aggressively go after the drip, drip that you’re mentioning before and make sure that we’ve turned that faucet off.  And so I think you’ll find that that will continue.  This, of course, is going to add to their concern and help them focus in another area, as well.

Yes, sir?  

Q:  Yes, thank you.  Can you speak to how you go from a drug investigation to catching this and then also the kind of drugs and where that side of the investigation’s going?

GEN. WELSH:  The details of the drug investigation I can’t discuss, other than what we released to you before.  That’s being — that’s managed by OSI.  It continues now.  We know that there is one more person involved as a subject than there was the last time we talked to you.  There are 11 subjects now.  They’re at six different bases across the Air Force.  Three of them are in Air Force Global Strike Command. 

The details of that investigation, beyond that, I really can’t discuss with you.  But as part of that, as they examined evidence, they found a connection that indicated that this compromised the test material that occurred.  And so the test — the cheating is now a separate investigation.

Q:  So (OFF-MIC) Warren and Malmstrom, then?  Is that what you’re saying?

[Editor’s note for correction of the record:  There are two at Malmstrom and one at F.E. Warren involved with the drug investigation.]

Q:  And you know that this compromise of test does not involve these other bases, Minot, Warren?

GEN. WELSH:  All I know about the compromise of tests is what we know at this time in the investigation.  Right now, everybody involved is at Malmstrom.

SEC. JAMES:  Correct.

Q:  General, Main Street, Craig Whitlock with the Post.  I just want to follow up on David’s question and why you have such confidence in the integrity of the missile force?  As he pointed out, there’s been all these cases, not very flattering incidents going on.  You know, recently, as you said, General Welsh, the 20th Air Force commander, we find out he went on a bender in Moscow.  You know, that was a very embarrassing incident.  And now, as a result of this drug thing, you find out about pretty widespread cheating.  What makes you think you have a grip on what’s going on with this force?

SEC. JAMES:  Again, speaking from my perspective, the checks and balances give me confidence.  The leadership in place today give me confidence, and the discussions that we have had about this, and the fact that this compromise on this one particular test — and keep in mind, there are multiple tests and outside inspections and all these checks and balances — by the end of tomorrow, we will have retested.  And certainly, we have some of the results in.  They’re preliminary, of course, but they seem to be very much on par, a very high pass rate, and that, too, gives me confidence.

So for all of those reasons, based on everything I know today, I’m confident about the mission, not about the integrity of these particular airmen.  That’s the part that’s so disappointing.

GEN. WELSH:  Yeah, if I could add one thing, boss, the — the other thing is that these — the wings are inspected and evaluated routinely by higher headquarters, by outside agencies.  The Malmstrom wing failed a nuclear surety inspection last August, having nothing to do with air crew operational procedures, but having to do with a problem in a security scenario.

The retest of that was in October, and they scored the highest possible grade.  In November, they had a nuclear operations readiness inspection and scored excellent.  There are air crew operational tests included in all those kind of evaluations.  Every crew member who is qualified at Malmstrom also conducts a monthly simulator session with instructors grading them — and routinely senior supervisors in the wing overseeing it — where they go through the same operational procedures they’re being tested on academically in these monthly tests, but they have to demonstrate practical application and ability to actually accomplish the nuclear mission.

That’s why, on the operational side, Admiral Haney and I believe that the operational capability to conduct the mission is not impacted at this point in time.  The integrity issue clearly has got to be a concern with this kind of activity at this level, and we’re going to look into this, every means at our disposal.

Yes, sir?

Q:  I think this is for you, general.  Colin Clark, Breaking Defense.  

GEN. WELSH:  Hi, Colin.

Q:  In the good, old days, SAC was an elite organization.  Everybody involved, you know, was treated wonderfully by the American public.  There were movies about them.  Their mission was golden. 

Not so much today.  You’ve got lieutenants and captains sitting out in the middle of nowhere.  It’s cold.  There’s not a whole lot to do.  How do you maintain that sense of urgency, those rigorous standards day to day?  

GEN. WELSH:  Well, Colin, I would say you do it the way we’ve been doing it.  The standards haven’t changed.  We test them just as rigorously.  The scores are available.  We know how we perform with these evaluations.  They still do the job well.  They were sitting out in the middle of nowhere back in the days of SAC, as well, but there was a pride in the mission, because there was a focus on the mission.  There was — there was a feeling that the mission was critically important.

We have to ensure that the people we have in this business understand that that mission remains critically important.  And I believe that starts with the secretary and I.  We are committed to making sure that our nuclear airmen understand how critical they are to everything that this nation stands for in terms of security posture, that they’re critically important to the job of the United States Air Force.

The nuclear mission has been our number-one priority — very clearly our number-one — stated that way for the last almost six years now.  That’s not going to change.  

Q:  Do you plan to change any procedures, try and re-jig things, make it more difficult to anticipate what’s coming up?

GEN. WELSH:  Clearly, testing — training, education, test protocols, test proctoring procedures are all part of the look that the commanders of Global Strike Command and 20th Air Force and the wings are looking at as we speak.  They discussed that briefly this morning with the secretary.  They will present her recommendations during her visit.  And we’ll make adjustments in that regard.

SEC. JAMES:  Can I add on one point to this, Colin?  Again, part of the reason why I had intended anyway within the next few weeks — but I’m going to do it now next week — is to get at that very question and so that I can hear it and see it for myself, again, a fresh set of eyes and ears on the scene, to talk to these airmen and to assess that directly, because you hear various stories.  You hear that morale is low.  I’ve heard that morale is really quite high.  I’ve heard that we have quality concerns about people.  I’m also hearing that there are top-notch people.  And my guess is, the truth is somewhere in between.  

But this is a force that needs attention.  It is a top priority, and so as the chief said, we’re going to give it that level of priority.  And we come before you today, and we tell you some immediate corrective actions.  I want to work on some — call them midterm actions designed to address some of the issues you’re talking about.  But part of my fact-finding is going out and seeing and hearing and learning directly to help inform some of that.

Q:  General, some clarification on numbers, please.  Thirty-four Malmstrom, that’s — how many missiliers?  And also, sir, you said that this is the largest cheating scandal you’ve — cheating problem you’ve come across.  Is that in the Air Force or in the Air Force in general?  Or is that in the Global Strike Command?


GEN. WELSH:  — 34 of roughly 190.  There are 190 plus or minus a couple missile crew members at Malmstrom Air Force Base.  I don’t know the exact number.  But it’s right about 190.  And as far as the 34, I’m talking about for a cheating incident in the missile community.  This is the largest number any of us know of, and we are trying to do research to see if there’s a history here that we can relate to, see what lessons were learned, what adjustments were made, did we walk away from things that helped the problem, or did we fail to implement or whatever?  We don’t know that yet.

Q:  One other clarification.  The — you said the compromise was in the August-September timeframe.  That was specific to the 34 people who may have been implicated in this cheating scandal, correct?

GEN. WELSH:  Yes, ma’am.

Q:  And then so, at this point, you’re certain that there are — despite the fact that happened five, six months ago, whatever it was, you’re certain that there were no other cases of this happening between then and now?

GEN. WELSH:  We have no indications or evidence that it has occurred since then.  The investigation is just starting.

Q:  Is there — was there anything that was different about that, that testing in August and September?  Is it some longer yearly test or…

GEN. WELSH:  Not that I know of.


Q:  — go back (inaudible) 20th missile commander and the commander of the Global Strike Force in the same breath, were they — were they both replaced for cause?

GEN. WELSH:  No, sir, they weren’t.  The — the former commander of Air Force Global Strike Command is now the deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command.  

Q:  So he was promoted.

GEN. WELSH:  He — he was promoted to that job.  And so we replaced him in cycle.  And then the 20th Air Force commander went into place after General Carey was relieved.

BRIG. GEN. KODLICK:  We’ll take the last question over here (OFF-MIC) gentleman gets the final question.

Q:  (OFF-MIC) quick follow-up.  You said they were second lieutenants to captains.  Were any of them in any supervisory roles?

GEN. WELSH:  Brian, I don’t know the details of that.  I don’t believe so, but I — we’ll let this play out.  I don’t know the names.

Q:  Jon Harper with Stars and Stripes.  What do you suspect the motive was behind this cheating?  Was it just laziness?  Or was it an effort to cover up incompetence?

GEN. WELSH:  Yeah, I think until this investigation goes through, everything is speculation at this point in time.  I don’t know the answer.  I’ll give you an opinion.  It’s hard to cover up incompetence cheating one time on a test, when you’re going to have a monthly simulator with two instructors watching you actually conduct the practical application of this knowledge in a simulator.  You can’t hide that.  And so whether it’s to get a better score on a test or — I just — I’d be speculating as to what it is, but I — I don’t believe it’s incompetence.

BRIG. GEN. KODLICK:  Madam Secretary (OFF-MIC) closing comments (OFF-MIC) and then we’ll wrap up.

SEC. JAMES:  I would just like to sort of piggyback on that Q&A and say that the chief’s answer to your question is, again, another illustration of why I, as a new person, why I say I’m confident in the system, is because one test does not make the system.  Rather, this is a system which is complex, there are checks and balances, there are outside inspections that are done regularly.  This is a continuum that we are dealing with.

So I’m concerned about it.  I don’t like it.  It’s completely unacceptable.  We are going to get to the bottom of it.  We’re going to hold people appropriately accountable.  We talked about the immediate steps that we’re taking.  And then the chief and I are dedicated to not letting it drop at that point, but rather giving this arena, this — the nuclear forces generally some very high-level, ongoing attention to include looking for initiatives and what do we need to do for the people, the morale, the modernization going forward into the future.  So there’s immediate actions, and there’s future, and we’re going to address them all.

Q:  In terms of accountability, does that include base commanders or people like Global Strike Command or STRATCOM?  How high up the food chain are you going to look?

SEC. JAMES:  So accountability to me is everybody.  Everybody is accountable.  So I’m not prepared to say that, you know, what level of person.  I don’t know yet.  But there’s nobody who escapes accountability in the Air Force, as far as I’m concerned, so we’ll be looking at all of that.

BRIG. GEN. KODLICK:  Chief, any thoughts?

GEN. WELSH:  Nothing to add to that.