The Complex

Text Messing: SMS-ing Classified Information Creates Problems For Nuke Force

The ongoing cheating scandal in the Air Force's nuclear force has embarrassed the service, sidelined nearly 100 officers, and led senior officials to coordinate a wide-ranging review of what other problems might exist in missile units. But it also served as a vivid reminder of a simple truth: The U.S. military is still struggling with how to safeguard sensitive information in an era in which it can quickly be blasted to hundreds of people through cell phones and other unclassified and easy-to-hack electronic devices.

The scandal was first disclosed Jan. 15 by senior Air Force officials, who said that answers to a monthly proficiency test had been shared through text messages on personal cell phones. It has expanded to include at least 92 of about 190 missileers at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, forcing the service to bring in officers from other bases to fill "alert" shifts manning the missiles. The crisis has raised concerns about morale and leadership in a command that has historically prided itself on having a zero-defects culture -- significant, considering it guards the U.S. arsenal of nuclear Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The importance of the answers being shared by text message has received little attention, however. Air Force officials have been hesitant to describe what the answers include -- "the details need to stay with the investigation for now," Air Force Gen. Chief of Staff Mark Welsh said Jan. 15 -- but aspects of it are almost certainly sensitive, if not classified. Investigators with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations discovered the answers on a phone while looking at an officer tied to a separate drug investigation, officials said. It's not clear why Air Force nuclear personnel were even allowed to carry their cell phones while inside their heavily-secured posts; many offices in the Pentagon that handle far less dangerous missions ban staffers or visitors from using, or even bringing in, cell phones.

"While ICBM operations proficiency testing can involve classified information, OSI's investigation is still ongoing," said Lt. Col. John Sheets, an Air Force spokesman. "We'll know more once it's complete, and provide an update then."

Welsh described the exam on which the cheating occurred as designed to test "the knowledge of each crew member to perform their standard operational duties as a member of a missile crew." Missile officers felt like even though they needed to get 90 percent of the answers right to pass, there was pressure to score 100, Air Force Secretary Deborah James said after touring nuke bases last month and meeting with nuclear crews.

Proficiency tests have been used in the nuke force for years to keep launch officers on top of their game, said Col. Charlie Simpson (ret.), who manned missiles during the Cold War and is now executive director of the Association of Air Force Missileers. He, too, said he couldn't get into the specifics of what the tests include. Broadly, however, it calls for launch officers to recall information about how they should react to real-world events.

"The procedures are different than they were 30, 40 years ago, but they're not different that much," said Simpson, who still tours nuke bases and meets with launch officers.

Nevertheless, concerns about sensitive government information leaking on unclassified networks remain. Government employees working in some military buildings are required to leave their phones at the door, and examples abound of military personnel getting in trouble for sharing classified information on the wrong network, intentionally or not.

Take the case of Marine Maj. Jason Brezler. A board of fellow officers decided to oust him from the Marine Corps in December for alleged substandard conduct after it was discovered that he had used his unclassified Yahoo email account to send classified information about a crooked Afghan police chief to fellow Marines in Afghanistan. Brezler was punished despite a groundswell of support from other service members who noted that Brezler wanted to get the information to Marines in Afghanistan as quickly as possible due to fears about the police chief's connections to the Taliban.

The problems aren't limited to the United States. Several Israeli pilots are now in jail for transferring classified maps to each other on their unclassified cell phone. All told, more than a dozen service members were disciplined in the case.

Photo by KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

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