NMG member Bob Burns of the Washington bureau won last week’s AP Best of the Week award forthe latest in a series of scoops on the sorry state of security of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Burns, AP’s longtime military and national security writer, combined painstaking follow-up of source tips with persistent pressure on the Pentagon to document serious security lapses at two bases with intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Over a six-month investigation, Burns wrote several stories about troubles with the ICBM force, showing the security of a third of the U.S. nuclear arsenal might have been compromised. Each story generated more calls from sources and more tips to investigate.
Burns held one detail back until he could learn more: On at least a couple occasions, heavy concrete-and-steel doors meant to keep intruders out of underground launch control centers were left open while one of two crew members inside napped _ leaving the facilities vulnerable to terrorists.
Burns developed inside sources who told him about the doors’ purpose, security procedures that should have been followed and other details.
Initially, Air Force public affairs officers would only confirm violations had occurred and talk broadly about administrative action being taken. But Burns’ repeated calls, emails and visits to the Pentagon forced officials confirm the scope of the problem.
After Burns wrote several stories about the ICBM force’s problems, he scored an hours-long interview with Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, the Air Force commander in charge of the entire force of Minuteman 3 missiles. Kowalski acknowledged the violations, saying, “Some people out there are having a problem with discipline.”