In recent years, more and more big-box retailers have begun forcing their employees to work on Thanksgiving Day. Now, some Ohio state legislators have had enough. They're introducing bills that would give workers the right to refuse to punch in on Thanksgiving, and, if they do agree to show up on the holiday, to receive substantial overtime pay.
"Thanksgiving Day is supposed to be a day when we retreat from consumerism," says Cleveland's Democratic state Rep. Mike Foley, the author of one such bill. "It's a day when you hang out with your family, go play touch football, have a big turkey dinner, and complain about your crazy uncle or cousin—but you don't think about super blockbuster sales at Target."
Foley was inspired by news circulars advertising Thanksgiving Day sales. "My wife said, 'You're a legislator, do something about this.'"
Foley's House Bill 360 would allow stores to open on Turkey Day but ban them from retaliating against workers who opt to stay home with their families. Workers who do show up would be guaranteed triple wages—which would also apply on Black Friday if stores open earlier than normal (12:01 a.m. and earlier openings have become common).
Foley says he was inspired to write the bill last year while leafing through newspaper circulars advertising Thanksgiving Day sales. "My wife said, 'You're a legislator, do something about this,'" he recalls. "And I thought, 'Well, I am.'"
If employers want to treat Thanksgiving as "an opportunity to make money or get above the black line, so be it," say Democratic Rep. Robert Hagan, the bill's cosponsor. "But the fact still remains that they have that responsibility to take care of their workers."
In Middletown, Connecticut, Democratic state Rep. Matt Lesser has pledged to introduce a similar bill next year. "The idea is to discourage retailers" from opening on Thanksgiving, he told the Hartford Courant. "And if they do require their workers to come in on Thanksgiving, that they would at least be paid overtime to compensate."
Laws restricting Thanksgiving Day commerce aren't without precedent. For decades, Massachusetts, Maine, and Rhode Island have completely banned most retailers from opening their doors on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The rules date back to colonial-era "blue laws" that restricted commercial activity on Sundays. More recently, some labor advocates have called for a federal blue law to protect Christmas and Thanksgiving. (Don't hold your breath).
Although the GOP likes to think of itself as the party of family values, Foley and Hagan say that the Republicans who control the Ohio Legislature want nothing to do with their Thanksgiving law. Their bill, first introduced last year, was quickly tabled. It's not expected to come up for a vote this year either. "They are on the side of the retailers, the restaurant owners, the people making the money, as opposed to working families," Hagan says. "That's the bottom line."
Still, the backlash against Turkey Day retail has gained some steam. The Boycott Black Thursday Facebook page has more than 100,000 likes. And more than two-dozen retail chains plan to stay dark on Thanksgiving this year, including Barnes & Noble, Bed Bath & Beyond, Dillard's, Nordstrom, GameStop, and Costco. "We don't believe that we will lose ground to competitors," GameStop president Tony Bartel told the New York Times. "Even if we lose ground to competitors, we are making it corporate principle—we have committed to associates that we will not open on Thanksgiving."
The comparison, so stupid on so many levels that it isn't worth debunking, is not just an isolated example of partisan idiocy. In recent weeks, Republican operatives have trotted out a steaming heap of similar malarkey in an effort to ward off a popular revolt against the cable industry, which wants to charge big companies such as Google or Netflix for faster internet service while slowing it down for the rest of us. Here are four other ludicrous conservative arguments for why the Federal Communications Commission shouldn't prevent this from happening:
The reality: To prevent broadband companies from discriminating against certain types of internet traffic, President Obama's wants the FCC to regulate them as a public utilities. This is something it already does with telecommunications providers. While it's true that the Communications Act subjects telecoms to a 16 percent service fee—which helps provide phone service to rural communities—this doesn't mean broadband providers would automatically have to pay a similar tax.
2) Regulating the internet will stifle innovation and job creation.
The reality: The internet we know and love is already built on the concept of net neutrality. Obama's proposed "regulation" would simply maintain the status quo by preventing monopolistic broadband providers from charging content providers tiered rates for different speeds of internet service. Far from stifling innovation, net neutrality encourages it by allowing startups to compete on the same footing as giants like Google and Facebook. That's why it has overwhelming support among Silicon Valley's "job creators."
3) Letting big companies hog bandwidth will encourage cable companies to create more bandwidth
[T]he answer is not regulations promoting net neutrality. You can already smell the mandates and the loopholes once Congress gets involved. Think special, high-speed priority for campaign commercials or educational videos about global warming. Or roadblocks—like requiring emergency 911 service—to try to kill off free Internet telephone service such as Skype.
The reality: Regulating broadband providers as utilities does not give the FCC more authority to tell them how to treat specific types of content. In fact, preventing discrimination against certain types of content by ISPs is the whole point. That's why net neutrality is popular with everyone from John Oliver to porn stars.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is ordering a massive overhaul of America's nuclear weapons program after finding that "we've taken our eye off the ball," he said at a press conference on Friday morning. The Pentagon released a review of the nuclear forces that found outdated equipment, weak leadership, and abysmal morale among the men and women responsible for maintaining and launching some of the most destructive weapons on the planet. It found, for example, that the Air Force had only one wrench to attach and remove nuclear warheads on 450 ICBMs at three different bases. Maintenance officers would FedEx it among the bases.
The wrench fiasco, since remedied, "is reflective and indicative of a system that has been allowed to slowly back downhill," Hagel said. "We must change the culture of the nuclear force, especially in the Air Force."
"Nothing the Air Force is doing is going to reduce the risk. It's not missileers who are at fault, it's the mission."
The review of the nuclear program was led by Retired General James Welch, a former top nuclear commander whom the Pentagon has tapped repeatedly to assess problems with its nuclear oversight. In 2007, Welch also led the initial outside review of what remains the worst nuclear weapons scandal in recent years: Six nuclear missiles went missing for 36 hours after a crew at Minot Air Force Base mistakenly loaded them onto a plane and flew them across the country. (See our timeline: "That Time We Almost Nuked North Carolina.") Welch later directed two follow-up assessments in April 2011 and April 2013, the last of which noted improvements and concluded that "the nuclear force is professional, disciplined, committed and attentive to the special demands of the mission."
But that conclusion was quickly called into question by a string of new scandals, as detailed in "Death Wears Bunny Slippers," my recent feature story about the ICBM program. In the months following Welch's review, 98 missileers were implicated in a cheating scandal and nine midlevel commanders were fired; a leaked email from the commander of the nuclear missile wing at North Dakota's Minot Air Force base complained of "rot" in the missile force; and Gen. Michael Carey was removed as commander of the ICBM program after an official trip to Russia, where he engaged in "inappropriate behavior," including heavy drinking, rudeness to his hosts, and associating with "suspect" women. Just last week, the Air Force fired two high-level commanders in the ICBM program and disciplined a third for various leadership lapses, including the maltreatment of subordinates.
The Air Force has long struggled to create a balance between strong oversight of missileers and the need to create a rewarding work environment that attracts talented recruits. Following the 2007 missing-nukes scandal, the Air Force instituted a regimen of strict tests and inspections that "was as much punishment as it was rigor," Lt. General Stanley Kowalski, now the Deputy Commander of US Strategic Command, said at the time. In a follow-up report three years later, Welch suggested that the strategy had backfired by sowing mistrust and creating a sense of "nuclear paranoia"—talented airmen were avoiding nuclear weapons jobs.
Missileers see "leaders who demand zero mistakes in every operational and administrative action (an impossible expectation that cannot be realized)," Welch wrote."
In the review released on Friday, Welch reiterated those concerns, citing problems with overzealous inspections and "demand for micro-perfection." At the same time, he noted that leaders had ignored glaring problems, such as silos whose eight-ton concrete-and-steel blast doors would not shut. Welch described "leaders who demand zero mistakes in every operational and administrative action (an impossible expectation that cannot be realized)." He suggested that many of them have been more concerned with protecting their reputations than insuring the overall safety of the nuclear weapons stockpile.
To fix the problems in the force, Hagel will promote its top commanders to give the nuclear wing more clout within the Air Force bureaucracy; create a new service medal to reward high-achieving nuclear staff; and seek to increase the nuclear enterprise's budget by at least 10 percent over the next five years in order to update equipment and expand hiring. (Here's the DoD's summary of the announced changes).
"Our policy is to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our security strategy," Hagel said, "but that doesn't diminish our responsibility. As long as we have nuclear weapons, we must insure that they are safe, secure, and effective."
Nobody at press conference asked Hagel why we even need ICBMs, although completely eliminating them is an idea that has been taken seriously within the defense establishment.
Read more MoJo stories on America's atomic arsenal
During my reporting for "Death Wears Bunny Slippers," I interviewed a slew of nuclear policy experts and traveled to Great Falls, Montana—home to Malmstrom Air Force Base—where I spent time with current and former missileers. They told me of the mind-numbing boredom of babysitting ICBMs for 24 hours straight, of cheating on proficiency tests, of how one colonel made them shit in a box because he didn't want to take the missiles offline to fix the toilets. They were basically dying to get out.
The consensus among the experts was that no amount of funding or attention will be enough to fix the ICBM program's biggest problem: obsolescence. "I am deeply disappointed with the happy talk coming out of the Air Force and Department of Defense on this," Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a foundation focused on nuclear weapons policy, told me. (Disclosure: Ploughshares Fund has provided funding for Mother Jones' national security reporting.) "These missileers are in dead-end jobs and they know it. They pull 24-hour shifts underground waiting to push a button that they know they are never going to push, and if they did, they would be condemning hundreds of thousands of civilians to death. What kind of job is that? New helicopters and new managers are not going to fix this problem. Nothing the Air Force is doing is going to reduce the risk. It's not missileers who are at fault, it's the mission."
Along a lonely state highway on central Montana's high plains, I approach what looks like a ranch entrance, complete with cattle guard. "The first ace in the hole," reads a hand-etched cedar plank hanging from tall wooden posts. "In continuous operation for over 50 years." I drive up the dirt road to a building surrounded by video cameras and a 10-foot-tall, barbed-wire-topped fence stenciled with a poker spade. "It is unlawful to enter this area," notes a sign on the fence, whose small print cites the Subversive Activities Control Act of 1950, a law that once required communist organizations to register with the federal government. "Use of deadly force authorized."
Read more MoJo stories on America's atomic arsenal
I'm snapping photos when a young airman appears. "You're not taking pictures, are you?" he asks nervously.
"Yeah, I am," I say. "The signs don't say that I can't."
"Well, we might have to confiscate your phone."
Maybe he should. We're steps away from the 10th Missile Squadron Alpha Missile Alert Facility, an underground bunker capable of launching several dozen nuclear-tipped Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), with a combined destructive force 1,000 times that of the Hiroshima bomb.
Another airman comes out of the ranch house and asks for my driver's license. He's followed by an older guy clad in sneakers, maroon gym shorts, and an air of authority. "I'm not here to cause trouble," I say, picturing myself in a brig somewhere.
"Just you being here taking photos is causing trouble," he snaps.
An alarm starts blaring from inside the building. One airman turns to the other. "Hey, there's something going off in there."
Six hours earlier, I was driving through Great Falls with a former captain in the Air Force's 341st Missile Wing. Aaron, as I'll call him, had recently completed a four-year stint at the Alpha facility. Had President Obama ordered an attack with ICBMs, Aaron could have received a coded message, authenticated it, and been expected to turn a launch key.
We kept passing unmarked blue pickup trucks with large tool chests—missile maintenance guys. The Air Force doesn't like to draw attention to the 150 silos dotting the surrounding countryside, and neither does Great Falls. With about 4,000 residents and civilian workers and a $219 million annual payroll, Malmstrom Air Force Base drives the local economy, but you won't see any missile-themed bars or restaurants. "We get some people that have no idea that there's even an Air Force base here," one active-duty missileer told me.
It's not just Great Falls practicing selective amnesia. The days of duck-and-cover drills, fallout shelters, and No Nukes protests are fading memories—nowhere more so than in the defense establishment. At a July 2013 forum in Washington, DC, Lt. General James Kowalski, who commands all of the Air Force's nuclear weapons, said a Russian nuclear attack on the United States was such "a remote possibility" that it was "hardly worth discussing."
But then Kowalski sounded a disconcerting note that has a growing number of nuclear experts worried. The real nuclear threat for America today, he said, "is an accident. The greatest risk to my force is doing something stupid."
Lt. General James Kowalski Air Force
"You can't screw up once—and that's the unique danger of these machines," points out investigative journalist Eric Schlosser, whose recent book, Command and Control, details the Air Force's stunning secret history of nuclear near-misses, from the accidental release of a hydrogen bomb that would have devastated North Carolina to a Carter-era computer glitch that falsely indicated a shower of incoming Soviet nukes. "In this business, you need a perfect safety record."
Once the military's crown jewels, ICBM bases have become "little orphanages that get scraps for dinner."
And a perfect record, in a homeland arsenal made up of hundreds of missiles and countless electronic and mechanical systems that have to operate flawlessly—to say nothing of the men and women at the controls—is a very hard thing to achieve. Especially when the rest of the nation seems to have forgotten about the whole thing. "The Air Force has not kept its ICBMs manned or maintained properly," says Bruce Blair, a former missileer and cofounder of the anti-nuclear group Global Zero. Nuclear bases that were once the military's crown jewels are now "little orphanages that get scraps for dinner," he says. And morale is abysmal.
Blair's organization wants to eliminate nukes, but he argues that while we still have them, it's imperative that we invest in maintenance, training, and personnel to avoid catastrophe: An accident resulting from human error, he says, may be actually more likely today because the weapons are so unlikely to be used. Without the urgent sense of purpose the Cold War provided, the young men (and a handful of women) who work with the world's most dangerous weapons are left logging their 24-hour shifts under subpar conditions—with all the dangers that follow.
In August 2013, Air Force commanders investigated two officers in the ICBM program suspected of using ecstasy and amphetamines. A search of the officers' phones revealed more trouble: They and other missileers were sharing answers for the required monthly exams that test their knowledge of things like security procedures and the proper handling of classified launch codes. Ultimately, 98 missileers were implicated for cheating or failure to report it. Nine officers were stripped of their commands, and Colonel Robert Stanley, the commander of Malmstrom's missile wing, resigned.
The Air Force claimed the cheating only went as far back as November 2011. Ex-missileers told me it went back decades: "Everybody has cheated on those tests."
The Air Force claimed the cheating only went as far back as November 2011, but three former missileers told me it was the norm at Malmstrom when they arrived there back in 2007, and that the practice was well established. (Blair told me that cheating was even common when he served at Malmstrom in the mid-1970s.) Missileers would check each other's tests before turning them in and share codes indicating the correct proportion of multiple-choice answers on a given exam. If the nuclear program's top brass, who all began their careers as missileers, weren't aware of it, the men suggested, then they were willfully looking the other way. "You know in Casablanca, when that inspector was 'absolutely shocked' that there was gambling at Rick's? It's that," one recently retired missileer told me. "Everybody has cheated on those tests."
Cheating is just one symptom of what Lt. Colonel Jay Folds, then the commander of the nuclear missile wing at North Dakota's Minot Air Force Base, called "rot" in the atomic force. Last November, Associated Press reporter Robert Burns obtained a RAND study commissioned by the Air Force. It concluded that the typical launch officer was exhausted, cynical, and distracted on the job. ICBM airmen also had high rates of sexual assault, suicide, and spousal and child abuse, and more than double the rates of courts-martial than Air Force personnel as a whole.
The morale problems were well known to Michael Carey, the two-star general who led the program at the time the cheating was revealed. Indeed, he pointed them out to other Americans during an official military cooperation trip to Moscow, before spending the rest of his three-day visit on a drunken bender, repeatedly insulting his Russian military hosts and partying into the wee hours with "suspect" foreign women, according to the Air Force's inspector general. He later confessed to chatting for most of a night with the hotel's cigar sales lady, who was asking questions "about physics and optics"—and thinking to himself: "Dude, this doesn't normally happen." Carey was stripped of his command in October 2013.
The embarrassments just keep coming. Last week, the Air Force fired two more nuclear commanders, including Col. Carl Jones, the No. 2 officer in the 90th Missile Wing at Wyoming's Warren Air Force Base, and disciplined a third, for a variety of leadership failures, including the maltreatment of subordinates. In one instance, two missileers were sent to the hospital after exposure to noxious fumes at a control center—they had remained on duty for fear of retaliation by their commander, Lt. Col. Jimmy "Keith" Brown. This week, the Pentagon is expected to release a comprehensive review of the nuclear program that details "serious problems that must be addressed urgently."
"Their buddies from the B-52s and B-2s tell them all sorts of exciting stories about doing real things in Afghanistan and Iraq. They end up feeling superfluous."
Stung by the recent bad press, the Air Force has announced pay raises, changes to the proficiency tests, and nearly $400 million in additional spending to increase staffing and update equipment. In the long term, Congress and the administration are debating a trillion-dollar suite of upgrades to the nuclear program, which could include replacing the existing ICBMs and warheads with higher-tech versions.
But outside experts say none of the changes will address the core of the problem: obsolescence. "There is a morale issue," says Hans Kristensen, who directs the Federation of American Scientists' Nuclear Information Project, "that comes down to the fundamental question: How is the ICBM force essential? It's hard to find that [answer] if you sit in the hole out there. Their buddies from the B-52s and B-2s tell them all sorts of exciting stories about doing real things in Afghanistan and Iraq. They end up feeling superfluous."
A missile commander's launch switches. National Park Service
Indeed, on my first night in town, over beer and bison burgers, Aaron had introduced me to "Brent," another recently former missileer who looks more like a surfer now that his military crew cut is all grown out. Brent lost faith in his leaders early on, he told me, when he saw the way they tolerated, if not encouraged, a culture of cheating. He'd resisted the impulse, he said, and his imperfect test scores disqualified him for promotions. But the worst part of the gig, the guys agreed, might be the stultifying tedium of being stuck in a tiny room all day and night waiting for an order you knew would never come. "Any TV marathon you can stumble upon is good," Brent said. "Even if it's something you hate. It's just that ability to zone out and lose time."
Aaron chimed in: "I would sit on alert with CNN up and just hit refresh, hoping to God something would happen in the world. I'm just like, 'Please, somethingchange. Oh my God! I am so tired and I am so bored.'"
"You get into that funk," he went on. "You just want to sit there and hope to God that this next 10 hours disappears. Because your partner goes to bed and you, the console, and the missiles are by yourself for 10 hours. My favorite time is when the TV broke! You've never seen more innovative people on Earth. They were taking the back off the TV, splitting wires, sticking paper clips in it. I came out and go, 'What happened?' and he goes, 'The fucking TV broke and I fixed it! I spent an hour and a half, but I fixed it.'"
This visit marks the first time Aaron has been in Great Falls since leaving the Air Force, and he still hasn't come to terms with spending five years of his life on a mission he's not sure he believes in. As we walk up to the Malmstrom base museum one morning, he starts to sweat. In the visitor center, he glues himself to a sofa as I hand my ID to a young airman. "Do you want to go inside?" I ask him.
"No, not really," he says, and then, once we're back in the car, explains sheepishly, "It's just weird being on base."
When Aaron hit on women in bars, he would sometimes lie and say he was a wind turbine technician.
Aaron took his first flight, on a puddle jumper, around age 10. An uncle who worked as a pilot later bought him a flying lesson, and Aaron never looked back. He applied and was accepted to the Air Force Academy. But during his senior year, the Air Force ended a waiver program that allowed cadets with imperfect vision—including Aaron—to earn their wings, so after graduation he grudgingly settled for a position at Malmstrom. He was hardly alone in his lack of enthusiasm: According to one study, less than one-third of missileers ever wanted that job. When Aaron hit on women in bars in Great Falls, he would sometimes say he was a wind turbine technician.
A delta facility blast door on exhibit. National Park Service
On a typical workday, he would arrive at Malmstrom by 7 a.m. and go through the first of some 50 daily checklists, an inspection of his Air Force-issued Ford Taurus X. For the next few hours, he would get briefings, study checklist changes, or complete exams before hitting the road with another missileer—each team includes a commander and a deputy—and sometimes a facilities manager and a chef, since you can't exactly summon Domino's to such a remote site.
A control center bunk. National Park Service
Once he arrived at the launch facility, Aaron would begin a 24-hour shift, known as an "alert," by going 60 feet underground in an elevator and passing through a four-and-a-half-foot-thick blast door. The control center, about the size of an RV trailer, hangs inside a concrete capsule from pneumatic cylinders designed to help it ride out shock waves from a nuclear blast. Each unit controls 10 Minuteman III missiles but can launch up to 50 should the need arise. The temperature is a constant 68 degrees and the tiny bathroom contains a "prison toilet." While one missileer monitors the control panels, his partner sleeps in a bed opposite, hence the unofficial motto: "Death wears bunny slippers."
Any suggestion of restfulness is misleading, however. The missile wing slogan "perfection is the standard" extends to the smallest of tasks—like the chef ensuring that the salad dressing hasn't expired. Botching a checklist would earn you a write-up, and could get you pulled from duty. Repeat mistakes could seriously harm your prospects for promotion. In Aaron's view, the job was like a "Pavlovian experiment," with some kind of buzzer going off, it seemed, every 15 minutes. Facing the threat of reprisal for the smallest mistakes, he never got much sleep.
It turned out that Aaron had joined the nuclear program at a particularly bad time. In June 2006, the top-secret nose cone fuse assemblies of four Minuteman III missiles were accidentally shipped from Hill Air Force Base in Utah to Taiwan, which had requested helicopter batteries; the boxes sat for nearly two years before the Air Force, prompted by Taiwanese officials, finally acknowledged its error.
The next year, just four months after Aaron started at Malmstrom, six hydrogen bombs from Minot went missing for a day and a half after a crew mistakenly loaded them onto a plane and flew them across the country. "It was an incredibly serious security lapse," Schlosser says. "The fact that nobody was asked to sign for the weapons when they were removed from the bunker, the fact that nobody in the loading crew or on the airplane even knew that the plane was carrying nuclear weapons, is just remarkable." A string of investigations concluded that the nuclear corps had lost its "zero defect" culture. In response, the Air Force launched a program to "sustain, modernize, and recapitalize its nuclear capability." What that meant in practice, Aaron says, was punishing the rank and file for past mistakes while the colonels swept the bigger problems under the rug.
A mock launch control center at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. National Park Service
Rather than take missiles offline to repair a major sewage leak, a colonel ordered launch officers to defecate in a cardboard box.
A few months into the modernization program, sewer pipes in two Malmstrom launch facilities ruptured and a deep stew of human waste lingered at the bottom of the capsules. Despite the intolerable stench, the colonel in charge refused to take the units offline for repair. The men were instead ordered to defecate in a cardboard box lined with a plastic bag, but since nobody wanted to carry the box upstairs when it got full, the missileers began relieving themselves from a gangplank directly into the bottom of the capsule. This went on for four or five months. "You are sitting there being told you are operating the most vital system to the defense of the country," says a former missileer who worked in one of the affected capsules, "and then you are shitting and pissing in a bag. It just caused a corrosive lack of faith in our leaders."
Since Aaron can't bring himself to set foot on base, we decide to visit Belt, a quaint former mining town nestled in a creek valley. We drive through the old brick downtown, past dog walkers and kids on bikes. "Slow down a little bit," Aaron says, just after we pass the last row of houses. "To the left is a nuclear weapon."
Behind a chain-link fence, I spot the 110-ton silo door, which would be sent flying over our heads in a launch scenario. An adversary might try to nuke this missile before it could be used—which is why the Air Force has them scattered over five states. But the neighbors have more to worry about than our enemies abroad.
The Titan II carried a thermonuclear warhead 560 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. Rob Schoenbaum/Zuma
On September 18, 1980, an airman conducting maintenance on a Titan II missile in a silo near Damascus, Arkansas, used an unauthorized socket wrench to unscrew a cap near the top of the missile. The nine-pound socket came loose, plunged 70 feet, and punched a hole in the fuel tank. Nine hours later, the missile exploded, killing one person, injuring 21 others, and scattering debris over a half-mile radius. The warhead flew 200 yards and landed, thankfully without detonating, in a roadside ditch. It was the largest weapon ever mounted on an ICBM, a nine-megaton hydrogen bomb with more explosive potential than all of WWII's bombs—including the nukes—combined.
The Damascus incident, which provided the central narrative for Schlosser's book, illustrated a problem that has plagued America's nuclear program since its inception: Nukes are designed, operated, and maintained by people—and people invariably make mistakes. Between 2008 and 2014, the Air Force reported 1,430 "dull sword" incidents: relatively minor deficiencies such as an unauthorized entry into a launch capsule or a security team failing to respond to alarms.
The Air Force has been less forthcoming, however, about the more serious mishaps, known as "broken arrows" or "bent spears," which are often kept classified. But "you don't have to be an industrial expert to know that accidents happen when people are careless, and people are careless when they don't care about their jobs," says Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a foundation focused on nuclear weapon policy. (Ploughshares has provided funding for Mother Jones' national-security reporting.)
The risk of an accidental nuclear detonation in the Minuteman fleet is "vanishingly small," says a leading nuclear safety expert. But "I will not say zero."
Bob Peurifoy, who introduced new nuclear safety features as a director of weapon development and VP at Sandia National Laboratories from 1973 to 1991, told me that built-in missile safeguards have improved to the point where the risk of an accidental detonation of a Minuteman-mounted nuke is "vanishingly small." But, he adds, "I will not say zero. I know how to get to zero: Don't put the weapon together" until the moment you need to use it. Peurifoy also believes that the United States needs to step back further from its Cold War-era posture. "In my opinion," he says, the missiles' pinpoint accuracy "is an example of a technology driving a reckless policy, a form of insanity" that encourages both the United States and Russia to continue targeting each other's silos and launch the missiles "on warning" of an incoming barrage. False alarms have nearly triggered accidental war on more than one occasion, Peurifoy notes, the most recent (that we know about) coming during the 1990s. "It's an accident waiting to happen."
Two days later, I return to the base museum, where I spot a sign much like the one I'd seen back on the highway. JFK, legend has it, referred to the Alpha fleet as his "ace in the hole" because it allowed him to stare down the Soviets during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But museum curator Curt Shannon, a retired Air Force "ammo puke" whose job entailed loading nuclear bombs onto planes, assures me the legend is bogus—he personally unearthed a Boeing marketing brochure predating the Missile Crisis that read: "Minuteman: Montana and America's Ace in the Hole." The Kennedy story, Shannon suggests, was concocted by the defense contractor to sell more missiles.
We watch a Minuteman III promotional video that is shown to all museum visitors. With a burst of flame, the missile blasts skyward, accompanied by triumphal music. It burns through two stages before reaching outer space, where, with video-game-style sound effects, a spinning warhead pivots and falls earthward, ripping through the atmosphere at 15,000 mph. In the end, it lands harmlessly in the ocean. "Of course, if it hits the water, somebody screwed up," Shannon jokes as he resets the DVD player.
What the video leaves out is that if we ever do deploy a nuke, it probably won't be an ICBM, because Russia or China might interpret the launch as an attack even if we were actually aiming for, say, Iran or North Korea. Instead, most defense experts believe that in almost all foreseeable scenarios we'd strike with a bomber or a submarine, deployed from nearby shores or military bases.
At a 2012 Senate hearing, a former Joint Chiefs vice chairman testified that ICBMs could be eliminated without leaving America at risk.
Why, then, does America bother with land-based missiles? The Air Force argues that it's basically a show of strength, since an enemy would have to take out every silo to disarm us. But that logic no longer seems compelling, even to some high-profile former military leaders. Retired General James Cartwright, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a 2012 Senate hearing that our nuclear stockpile could be safely reduced from 4,800 warheads to 900 mounted in bombers and submarines, with ICBMs eliminated entirely.
Ditching the ICBMs would save taxpayers $14 billion over the next 10 years, but not everyone's a fan of the idea: Senators from states where the missiles are based and tested have formed an ICBM caucus that isn't shy to throw its weight around. As a condition for confirming Rose Gottemoeller, Obama's recent pick for undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, the caucus insisted that the Pentagon maintain all 454 ICBM silos, even through it is trimming the number of missiles to 400. (Yes, we will man and maintain 54 empty silos.)
At the museum, I meet "Frank," an active-duty missileer and museum volunteer who says he was assigned to the space program before being transferred to missiles at the last minute because they needed workers. When he started at Malmstrom three years ago, his superiors told him not to complain until he gained some experience. Now that he has, he's dying to get out. He nods toward a woman who is milling through the exhibits. "This lady works for Boeing, and she's actually a recruiter," he confides. "I might talk to her afterwards. The lifestyle is not quite what I wanted."
Is it really such a great idea, I ask him, to have a bunch of disillusioned guys babysitting such terrifying weapons?
"You're hitting a topic that has been talked about and bitched about for a looong time," Frank says with a smile. "Do something for us. Please."
Another Minuteman III promo video. (Northrup Grumman used to be a key ICBM contractor.)
The hydrogen bomb that very nearly detonated on American soil.
Thanks to a steep learning curve in the design and handling of nuclear weapons, a continuing emphasis on readiness before safety, and a history of mismanagement, the United States military has had a frightening number of near-misses. (Click on the box below for our companion story about the disgruntled young men who babysit our land-based missiles.) Here's an abridged timeline of scandals and close calls gleaned from media reports, military sources, and from Eric Schlosser's must-read book, Command and Control, which chronicles in terrifying detail just how close we've come to the abyss.
1956: A B-47 bomber veers off a runway and rips apart a storage igloo containing Mark 6 atomic bombs before exploding.
January 1958: On a runway in Morocco, a B-47's tires blow out, starting a fire that melts the plane—and its Mark 36 hydrogen bomb—into an 8,000-pound hunk of radioactive slag.
March 1958: While flying over Mars Bluff, South Carolina, the pilot of a B-47 accidentally drops a Mark 6 bomb into a family's backyard. Although the bomb is lacking its nuclear core, its high explosives wreck the home, injure six family members, and leave behind a crater 35 feet deep.
The Mark 6 Wikimedia
November 1958: A B-47 carrying a Mark 39 hydrogen bomb crashes near Abilene, Texas. The bomb's conventional explosives detonate without triggering a nuclear blast.
1958: Warheads of all Mark 28 bombs are replaced after tests determine that an accident could trigger a nuclear detonation.
1959: A B-52 bomber collides with a refueling tanker and breaks apart over Kentucky. Two nuclear cores are found resting on a pile of broken high explosives.
1960: Weapons experts visiting a NATO base witness German fighter jets loaded with atomic bombs being guarded by a lone American soldier carrying a bolt-action rifle.
1961: Four days after President John F. Kennedy takes office, a B-52 spins out near Goldsboro, North Carolina, releasing a Mark 39 hydrogen bomb that responds as if deliberately dropped. A cockpit ready/safe switch that proved unreliable in other incidents is the only thing preventing a massive nuclear detonation. A second Mark 39 plummets to the ground unarmed, and portions of the bomb penetrate deep into the swampy soil (see photo); its uranium core is never recovered.
Workers recover a portion of a second bomb dropped over North Carolina. US Airforce/Wikimedia
1965: A welder working in a Titan II silo in Arkansas starts a fire that asphyxiates 53 people.
1966: A B-52 carrying four Mark 28 hydrogen bombs crashes into a refueling tanker and breaks apart above Palomares, Spain. Two bombs partially detonate, releasing radiation over the town and contaminating nearly 4,000 truckloads of crops.
One of the recovered Palomares bombs. US Navy/Wikimedia
1968: A B-52 flying over Greenland crashes, scattering radioactive parts across three square miles.
1969: Twenty crewmembers of a Polaris nuclear sub are caught using drugs. A former crewmember tells a reporter that hashish was often smoked when at sea.
1970: The head of Sandia National Laboratory's nuclear safety department briefs the Atomic Energy Commission on how supposedly "failsafe" nukes can detonate under extreme heat and stress. The AEC takes no action.
Sandia National Laboratories
1974: In a letter to a top AEC official, a Sandia VP warns that many nukes could accidentally detonate during a fire or crash. The AEC takes no action.
1977: General William E. Odom, a national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, attends a briefing on the SIOP, the nation's nuclear war plan, and comes away stunned: "At times I simply could not believe what I was being shown and told," Odom later notes. "It was just a huge mechanical war plan aimed at creating maximum damage without regard to the political context…And the president would be left with two or three meaningless choices that he might have to make within 10 minutes after he was awakened after a deep sleep some night."
1979: A technician mistakenly uploads a highly realistic war games simulation to NORAD's computers, which promptly signal a massive Soviet nuclear launch. Officials scramble the bombers and prepare for World War III. Only after the phantom missiles fail to materialize do they realize it's a false alarm.
June 1980: President Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, is awakened by General Odom around 2:30 a.m. NORAD'S computers have detected the launch of 220 missiles from Soviet subs toward the homeland. Brzezinski prepares forces for a massive nuclear retaliation. Odom calls back to report the launch of 2,200 missiles from Soviet ground sites. As before, it turns out to be a false alarm, caused this time by a flawed computer chip, which is later replaced at a cost of 46 cents.
September 1980: A socket dropped by a maintenance worker punctures a Titan II missile in Arkansas. Its highly toxic fuel explodes, killing one person, injuring 21, and hurling the warhead 200 yards into a roadside ditch. That same month, a safety expert at the Sandia lab demonstrates to the Air Force inspector general how a Mark 28 nuclear bomb could detonate in a plane crash. The IG commissions a study.
A Titan II US Department of Defense/Wikimedia
1984: During a sound check prior to his national radio address, President Ronald Reagan improvises:"My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes." When news of the gag leaks, the world is not amused.
1990: Advances in computing bring about "a realization that unintended nuclear detonations present a greater risk than previously estimated," notes a House Armed Services Committee report.
1995: The launch of a small Norwegian weather rocket convinces the Kremlin it is under nuclear attack by the United States. President Boris Yeltsin prepares to retaliate before the warning is declared a false alarm.
Boris Yeltsin with then-President Clinton. Stephan Savoia/AP
2003: Half of the Air Force units responsible for nuclear weapons fail their safety inspections, despite a three-day advance warning.
2006: Nose cone fuse assemblies of four Minuteman III missiles are accidentally shipped from Utah to Taiwan. The boxes sat for nearly two years before the Air Force, prompted by Taiwanese officials, finally acknowledged its error.
2007: Six nuclear missiles go missing for 36 hours after a crew at Minot Air Force Base mistakenly loads them onto a plane and flies them across the country.
May 2008: A fire in a Minuteman III silo in Wyoming melts part of a shotgun and damages an electrical cable connected to the missile—but it isn't detected by a smoke alarm.
October 2008: The Air Force launches a program to "sustain, modernize, and recapitalize its nuclear capability." The reform effort, consisting of a strict new inspection regime, was "as much punishment as it was rigor," Lt. General Kowalksi, commander of the Air Force's nuclear weapons, admits later.
2009: A missileer is placed on duty at Malmstrom Air Force Base without being certified to handle emergency war orders.
February 2010: A nuclear munitions crew at Kirtland Air Force Base is decertified for failing safety inspections.
October 2010: A computer failure knocks 50 Minuteman III missiles offline for more than an hour, preventing launch crews from communicating with the weapons systems.
2011: The Defense Science Board reports that the Air Force's inspection reforms are backfiring, "creating a climate of distrust."
July 2012: An 84-year-old nun named Sister Megan Rice and two fellow activists break into a weapons-grade uranium facility, where they remain undetected for more than an hour. The security breach, noted the DOE's Inspector General, exposed "troubling displays of ineptitude."
Sister Megan Rice Facebook
September 2012: A security alarm goes off at a Warren launch facility. Security forces fail to respond in a timely fashion.
December 2012: A missileer is mistakenly placed on launch duty at Malmstrom, even though he'd been decertified for failing safety inspections.
January 2013: The Defense Science Board warns that the nuclear command-and-control system's ability to withstand a major hacking attack has never been fully vetted.
April 2013: Nineteen missileers at Minot are deemed unfit for command and forced to surrender their launch authority due to performance and attitude problems.
May 2013: A deputy crew commander falls asleep in a launch capsule with the blast door open, a security violation. It's the second such incident at a missile site within a year.
July 2013: "The greatest risk to my force is doing something stupid," Lt. General James Kowalski says at a Washington, DC, defense forum.
Lt. General James Kowalski US Air Force
August 2013: The missile wing at Malmstrom fails a safety and security inspection. The security officer in charge is relieved of duty. That same month, Air Force Brass investigates two launch officers it suspects of using ecstasy and speed. A search of their phones leads to evidence of cheating by numerous launch control officers on their proficiency tests.
September 2013: Navy Vice Admiral Tim Giardina, the No. 2 in charge of nuclear forces, is suspended after being caught with counterfeit poker chips.
September 2013: Investigative journalist Eric Schlosser publishes Command and Control, a hair-raising exposé of the Air Force's nuclear misadventures.
October 2013: Maj. General Michael Carey is removed as commander of the ICBM program after an official trip to Russia, where he engaged in "inappropriate behavior," including heavy drinking, rudeness to his hosts, and associating with "suspect" women.
Maj. General Michael Carey US Air Force
November 2013: A RAND report reveals that missileers are suffering from "burnout" and have high rates of spousal abuse and courts martial.
January 2014: More than half of Malmstrom's 183 missileers are implicated in the cheating scandal.
February 2014: Sister Megan Rice, the elderly nun who broke into the nuclear weapons complex, is sentenced to 35 months in prison. Her two accomplices get 62 months.
March 2014: Nine launch officers are stripped of their commands, and Colonel Robert Stanley, the commander of Malmstrom's missile wing, resigns. The Air Force announces changes to its proficiency tests intended to discourage cheating and improve morale.
November 2014: The Air Force fires two high-level commanders in the Minuteman program and disciplines a third for various leadership failures, including the maltreatment of subordinates.