WASHINGTON — A basic contradiction lies at the root of an exam-cheating scandal that decimated the ranks of an Air Force nuclear missile group, investigators say: Commanders were demanding perfection in testing and ethics but also tacitly condoned rule-bending or even willfully ignored cheating.
An Air Force investigation concluded that no commanders participated in or knew about the specific forms of cheating in which 91 missile officers were implicated at Malmstrom Air Force Base. But nine commanders, representing nearly the entire operational chain of command in the 341st Missile Wing, were fired and the wing commander, Col. Robert Stanley, was allowed to resign.
"From the perspective of a young company-grade officer looking up the chain of command, leadership has delivered conflicting messages" on integrity and test performance, the report said. Leaders pressured young officers to achieve high scores "while tacitly condoning" acts that "take care of" crew members who might otherwise fall short of the expected perfect result, it said.
This "blurs the line between acceptable help and unacceptable cheating," it said.
Malmstrom is home to one of three Air Force intercontinental ballistic missile wings, each responsible for 150 Minuteman 3 nuclear missiles. The other wings are the 90th at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., and the 91st at Minot Air Force Base, N.D.
Beyond the investigation at Malmstrom, the Pentagon is undertaking two broader reviews of problems inside the ICBM force, including training failures, low morale and security lapses that The Associated Press documented over the past year. One of those reports is due in April, the other in June.
The force of 450 Minuteman 3 missiles is primed to unleash nuclear devastation on a moment's notice, capable of obliterating people and places halfway around the globe.
Investigators in the Malmstrom case surveyed missile officers' views on a range of issues related to the alleged cheating, including the methods and attitudes of their commanders.
"A startling 60.2 percent of respondents at some level agreed that their squadron leadership was aware of improper behavior," the report said, adding that a "particularly high" proportion - 10.4 percent - chose not to answer that question. "This would suggest that misbehavior within squadrons, such as test collaboration, was known at the squadron leadership level."
One missile crew member was quoted as telling investigators, "Cheating has been going on for years; however, leadership pretends that cheating is not happening." Another said, "Our squadron leadership was just another generation of cheaters."
A squadron is commanded by a lieutenant colonel and is responsible for 50 Minuteman 3 missiles linked in sets of 10 to a network of five launch control centers.
Investigators interviewed missile officers and their leaders at each of the three bases and at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., where airmen are given their initial 100 days of ICBM training before being assigned to one of the wings.
Missile launch crew members, known within the Air Force as missileers, typically are ages 22 to 27. The investigation report released by the Air Force said that of 15 trainees at Vandenberg who participated in a focus group discussion with investigators, "no individual wanted to be a missileer."
The report found evidence that instructors at Vanderberg "conditioned" students to "expect help on tests" when they arrived at their missile duty station.
The cheating scandal at Malmstrom was uncovered during the course of an unrelated drug probe targeting two young officers at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. A review of their cellphones yielded text messages to or from 11 Air Force officers at six other Air Force bases, including two at Malmstrom. The messages provided details on illegal use of synthetic drugs, particularly ecstasy and amphetamines, although none of the details were included in the Malmstrom report.
The report found fault among leaders far up the nuclear chain of command, but no one was punished beyond the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom. The two-star general who directly oversees the three ICBM wings, Jack Weinstein, took the post last fall after his predecessor, Michael Carey, was relieved of command in response to an investigation that concluded he had engaged in alcohol-fueled misbehavior while on an official trip to Russia last summer.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said Thursday that Carey, who has since served as a staff officer at Air Force Space Command with no responsibility for nuclear weapons, had put in his retirement papers. She will make the final decision on whether he is allowed to retire as a major general.