On October 19, the findings of an official Air Force investigation of the unprecedented flight of a nuclear armed B-52 bomber across the U.S. on August 30 was announced at a Pentagon press conference. The Secretary of the Air Force, Michael Wynne, opened the press conference by remarking that the Air Force would depart from its normal policy of silence on the movements of nuclear weapons; and, given the seriousness of the B-52 incident, would make public the movements of the Advanced Cruise missiles involved. He said: "We would not be this upset with ourselves, nor be striving to restore confidence, if this did not involve nuclear weapons." The seriousness of the incident was so great that it was given “Bent Spear” status which meant it was a nuclear mishap that had to be reported directly to the Secretary of Defense and the White House.
Secretary Wynne was followed by Maj. Gen. Richard Newton who claimed that the incident stemmed from “a series of procedural breakdowns and human errors.” One of the more serious of which was storing six advanced cruise missiles with nuclear warheads, in the same hangar as conventional missiles with dummy warheads. This was a failure to maintain standard procedures to prevent the commingling of conventional and nuclear weapons to ensure against them ever being mixed up. In a stinging rebuke to personnel at both Minot and Barksdale Air Force Bases, Newton referred to a “lack of attention to detail, a lack of effective leadership and supervision.” He further referred to “an erosion of adherence to weapons-handling standards at Minot Air Force Base and at Barksdale Air Force Base.” Newton said that four colonels had been relieved of their duties. A further 65 Air Force personnel had been decertified from handling nuclear weapons. Further disciplinary action, and even criminal charges, might be taken against the officials and airmen identified in the report.
The Air Force investigation is very clear in its findings that the B-52 incident stemmed from multiple cases of human error by highly trained personnel who failed to follow elaborate operating procedures for nuclear weapons. Furthermore, according to General Newton, “the six week investigation found that this was an isolated event.” Consequently, the investigation paints a clear picture of the Air Force coming to terms with the seriousness of the failures of its personnel. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the investigation effectively vilifies the personnel responsible for multiple failures in an effort to end the unfolding B-52 Bent Spear saga.
The official report stands in stark contrast to the findings of an independent investigation by Wayne Madsen who interviewed a number of confidential U.S. and foreign intelligence sources concerning the B-52 incident. His sources declared that the B-52 was part of a covert mission headed for the Middle East which is why they were routed through Barksdale AFB, a staging base for the Middle East operations. Madsen revealed that “a U.S. attack on Iran using nuclear and conventional weapons was scheduled to coincide with Israel’s September 6 in attack on a reputed Syrian nuclear facility … in northern Syria area near Turkish border.”
Madsen’s investigation claimed that Air Force personnel refused to follow classified orders for the Middle East deployment of the B-52 with its nuclear armed missiles. In effect, Air Force officers and personnel involved stood down in response to what were regarded as illegal orders concerning their use in the Middle East. This suggests that the B-52’s did not arrive at Barksdale with nuclear weapons due to human error as the official investigation claims, but had been ordered there as part of a covert mission. Madsen’s report gives credence to claims that orders emanated from very senior sources within the Bush administration.
In an earlier article, I wrote that the most likely source for such orders came from the Office of the Vice President who is well known for his hawkish views on the preemptive use of nuclear weapons against Iran. Madsen’s investigation led him to conclude the “U.S. military is now waging an internal war against neo-cons who are embedded in the U.S. government and military chain of command who are intent on using nuclear weapons in a pre-emptive war with Iran” . Consequently, while some within the Air Force are cooperating with neoconservatives desiring to initiate military intervention against Iran, which accounted for the nuclear weapons being loaded at Minot and flown to Barksdale, many military officials remain staunchly opposed to such intervention. This accounted for the original Air Force leak by three officers to the Military Times newspaper which reported on the incident on September 5.
If Madsen’s investigation is more accurate, then the Air Force personnel involved in the B-52 incident can be divided into two categories. The first category are those that followed classified orders issued by senior authorities within the Bush administration enabling the B-52 incident. These Air Force personnel have therefore been scapegoated for following orders that were likely highly classified due to the covert nature of the mission the B-52 was intended to perform. The second category are personnel that refused to follow orders that would have led to nuclear weapons being deployed into the Middle East without the knowledge of the normal chain of military command. It was these Air Force personnel who were responsible for the original leak to the Military Times on September 5 that alerted the public to the incident. It would not be inaccurate to describe these officials as true American patriots and heroes in protecting the sanctity of U.S. Constitutional principles.
What emerges from the official Air Force investigation is that internal efforts to identify and make accountable those ultimately responsible for the B-52 Bent Spear incident have failed. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral William Fallon, Commander of Central Command, have indicated their opposition to a preemptive nuclear attack on Iran. It is highly likely that they were genuinely surprised by the B-52 incident, and lost an internal power struggle to reveal what was really occurring. They were likely opposed by the remaining neo-conservatives that are led by Vice President Cheney. By attributing the B-52 incident to multiple human errors, both sides in the internal military and government struggle over the merits of a preemptive attack against Iran, have given themselves time to step back from the brink and consider their next move. It is unlikely that the neoconservative faction will give up on its efforts to move forward with a preemptive attack against Iran. At the same time, a determined group of military officials are opposed to such an attack, and are exposing covert plans for this to occur without the support of most of the American military and general public.
Furthermore, it is worth considering that the initial Military Times report on September 5 reported five nuclear missiles being found at Barksdale AFB. This was updated to six in a revised article by the same reporter on September 10. According to Madsen, his intelligence sources said only five advanced nuclear cruise missiles were found at Barksdale, after six left Minot AFB. So if one nuclear missile is still missing, then attention needs to be placed on those factions within the U.S. military and government that would benefit from the covert use of a nuclear weapon in the Middle East. Attention needs to be placed on those ultimately behind the B-52 incident, most likely based within the Office of the Vice President. It is therefore very possible that the B-52 incident involved two covert missions.
The official investigation of the B-52 Bent Spear incident was unsatisfactory since there are simply too many unanswered questions concerning how six nuclear weapons could be loaded onto the pylons of a B-52 without being noticed by highly trained personnel. Even though reporters such as Walter Pincus go to great lengths to describe how such mistakes could have occurred , others remain highly dubious. According to Dave Lindorff, a Naval officer claims that “it would be simply impossible for those weapons to have been moved out of the storage bunker. He claims to know for a certainty that all nuclear weapons in the US arsenal are equipped with high-tech tags (“like they have at WalMart and Kmart only better”) that would instantly trigger alarms when the weapons are moved, unless they were deliberately disarmed.” .
Finally, the official investigation was disappointing since it vilified Air Force personnel, rather than leveling with the American public over the covert mission the B-52 was engaged in. Air Force personnel were either unfairly scapegoated for following classified orders directly from senior officials in the Bush administration; or were true American patriots refusing to follow illegal orders sanctioning a preemptive nuclear attack against Iran. The B-52 incident is an unfolding saga involving villains, scapegoats and heroes. It is up to the general public and media to expose the real villains, and to identify the genuine heroes in exposing the dangers involved in the nuclear armed B-52 flown across the U.S. to Barksdale AFB on one or more covert missions.