Thursday, November 29, 2007

'The Mystery of Minot'

The Mystery of Minot: Loose nukes and a cluster of dead airmen raise
troubling questions

by Dave Lindorff

Global Research, 25 Nov 2007

The unauthorized Aug. 29/30 cross-country flight of a B-52H Stratofortress
armed with six nuclear-tipped AGM-29 Advanced Cruise missiles, which saw
these 150-kiloton warheads go missing for 36 hours, has all the elements of
two Hollywood movies. One would be a thriller about the theft from an armed
weapons bunker of six nukes for some dark and murky purpose. The lead might
be played by Matt Damon. The other movie would be a slapstick comedy about a
bunch of bozos who couldn't tell the difference between a nuclear weapon and
a pile of dummy warheads. The lead might be played by Adam Sandler, backed
by the cast of "Police Academy III."

So far, the Pentagon, which has launched two separate investigations into
the incident, seems to be assuming that it is dealing with the comedy
version, saying that some incredible "mistake" led to nuclear weapons being
taken inadvertently from a weapons-storage bunker, loaded into launch
position on a bomber, and flown from North Dakota to Louisiana.

To date, more than a month after the incident, Pentagon investigators have
completely ignored a peculiar cluster of six deaths, during the weeks
immediately preceding and following the flight, of personnel at the two Air
Force bases involved in the incident and at Air Force Commando Operations

The operative assumption of the investigations appears to be that an Air
Force decision to store nuclear, conventional, and dummy warheads in the
same bunker and one mistake by weapons handlers initiated a chain of errors
and oversights that led to the flight.

On Sept. 23, the Washington Post, in a story based upon interviews with
military officials, many of them unidentified, suggested that the first
known case of nuclear warheads leaving a weapons-storage area improperly was
the result of two mistakes. The first, the article suggested, was a decision
by the Air Force to permit the storing of nuclear weapons in the same highly
secure and constantly guarded sod-covered bunkers -- known as "igloos" -- as
non-nuclear weapons and dummy warheads (something that had never been
allowed in the past).

The second was some as yet unidentified mistake by weapons handlers at Minot
to mount six nuclear warheads onto six of the 12 Advanced Cruise Missiles
that had been slated to be flown to Barksdale AFB for destruction. Those
missiles and the six others, part of a group of 400 such missiles declared
obsolete and slated for retirement and disassembly, should have been fitted
with dummy warheads also. The Post article quotes military sources as saying
that once the mistake was made, a cascade of errors followed as weapons
handlers, ground crews, and the B-52 crew skipped all nuclear protocols,
assuming they were dealing with dummy warheads.

The problem with this theory is that dummy warheads don't look the same as
the real thing. The real warheads, called W80-1's, are shiny silver, a color
which is clearly visible through postage-stamp-sized windows on the nosecone
covers that protect them on the missiles. In addition, the mounted warheads
are encased in a red covering as a second precaution.

Apparently the nukes (which can be set to explode at between 5 kilotons and
150 kilotons) were easily spotted by a Barksdale AFB ground crew when they
went out to the plane on the tarmac hours after it landed. If the Barksdale
ground crew, which had absolutely no reason to suspect it was looking at
nuclear-tipped missiles, easily spotted the "error," why did everyone at
Minot miss it, as claimed?

Clearly, whoever loaded the six nukes on one B-52 wing pylon, and whoever
mounted that unit on the wing, knew or should have known that they were
dealing with nukes -- and absent an order from the highest authority in
Washington, loading such nukes on a bomber was against all policy. The odds
of randomly putting six nukes all on one pylon, and six dummies on the
other, are 1:924. And how curious that the pilot, who is supposed to check
all 12 missiles before flying, checked only the pylon containing the dummy

Various experts familiar with nuclear-weapons-handling protocols express
astonishment at what happened on Aug. 29 and 30. After all, over the course
of more than six decades, the protocols for handling nuclear arms have
called for at least two people at every step, with paper trails, bar codes,
and real-time computer tracking of every warhead in the arsenal. Nothing
like this has been known to have happened before. Air Force Gen. Eugene
Habiger, who served as US Strategic Command chief from 1996 to 1998, told
the Post, "I a have been in the nuclear business since 1966 and am not aware
of any incident more disturbing."

Philip Coyle, a senior advisor at the Center for Defense Information who
served as assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration,
calls the incident "astonishing" and "unbelievable." He says, "This wasn't
just a mistake. I've counted, and at least 20 things had to have gone wrong
for this to have occurred."

Bruce Blair, a former Air Force nuclear launch officer who is now president
of the World Security Institute, says that the explanation of the incident
as laid out in the Washington Post, and in the limited statements from the
Air Force and Department of Defense, which call it a "mistake," are
"incomplete." He notes that no mention has been made as to whether the nukes
in question, which had been pre-mounted on a pylon for attachment to the
B-52 wing, had their PAL (permission action link) codes unlocked to make
them operational, or whether a system on board the plane that would
ordinarily prevent an unauthorized launch had been activated. "For all we
know, these missiles could have been fully operational," he says.

The Air Force and Department of Defense are refusing to answer any questions
about such matters.

Meanwhile, there are those six deaths. On July 20, 1st Lt. Weston Kissel, a
28-year-old B-52 pilot from Minot, died in a motorcycle accident while on
home leave in Tennessee.

Another Minot B-52 pilot, 20-year-old Adam Barrs, died on July 5 in Minot
when a car he was riding in, driven by another Minot airman, Stephen
Garrett, went off the road, hit a tree, and caught fire. Airman Garrett was
brought to the hospital in critical condition and has since been charged
with negligent homicide.

Two more Air Force personnel, Senior Airman Clint Huff, 29, of Barksdale
AFB, and his wife Linda died on Sept. 15 in nearby Shreveport, Louisiana,
when Huff reportedly attempted to pass a van in a no-passing zone on his
motorcycle, and the van made a left-hand turn, striking them.

Then there are two reported suicides, which both occurred within days of the
flight. One involved Todd Blue, a 20-year-old airman who was in a unit that
guarded weapons at Minot. He reportedly shot himself in the head on Sept. 11
while on a visit to his family in Wytheville, Virginia. Local police
investigators termed his death a suicide.

The second suicide, on Aug. 30, was John Frueh, a special forces weather
commando at the Air Force's Special Operations command headquartered at
Hurlburt AFB in Florida. Hurlburt's website says, "Every night, as millions
of Americans sleep peacefully under the blanket of freedom," Air Force
Special Operations commandos work "in deep dark places, far away from home,
risking their lives to keep that blanket safe."

Frueh, 33, a married father of two who had just received approval for
promotion from captain to major, reportedly flew from Florida to Portland,
Oregon, for a friend's wedding. He never showed up. Instead, he called on
Aug. 29, the day the missiles were loaded, from an interstate pull-off just
outside Portland to say he was going for a hike in a park nearby. (It is not
clear why he was at a highway rest stop as he had no car.) A day later, back
in Portland, he rented a car at the airport, again calling his family. After
he failed to appear at the wedding, his family filed a missing person's
report with the Portland police. The Sheriff's Department in remote Skamania
County, Washington, found Frueh's rental car ten days later on the side of a
road nearly 120 miles from the airport in a remote area of Badger Peak.
Search dogs found his body in the woods. His death was ruled a suicide,
though neither the sheriff's investigator nor the medical examiner would
give details. What makes this alleged suicide odd, however, is that the
sheriff reports that Frueh had with him a knapsack containing a GPS locator
and a videocam -- odd equipment for someone intent on ending his life.

Of course, it could be that all six of these deaths are coincidences -- all
just accidents and personal tragedies. But when they occur around the time
six nuclear-tipped missiles go missing in a bizarre incident, the likes of
which the Pentagon hasn't seen before, one would think investigators would
be on those cases like vultures on carrion. In fact, police and medical
examiners in the Frueh and Blue cases say no federal investigators, whether
from DOD or FBI, have called them. Worse still, because the B-52 incident
got so little media attention -- no coverage in most local news -- none of
those investigating the accidents and suicides even knew about it or about
the other deaths.

"It would have been interesting to know all that when I was examining Mr.
Blue's body," says Virginia coroner Mike Stoker, "but no one told me about
any of it or asked me about him."

"If we had known that several people had died under questionable
circumstances, it might have affected how we'd look at a body,a? says Don
Phillips, the sheriff's deputy in Washington State who investigated the
Frueh death. "But nobody from the federal government has ever contacted us
about this."

"Certainly, in a case like this, the suicides should be a red flag," says
Hans Kristensen, a nuclear-affairs expert with the Federation of American
Scientists. "It's wild speculation to think that there might be some
connection between the deaths and the incident, but it certainly should be

Award-winning investigative reporter Dave Lindorff has been working as a
journalist for 33 years. A regular columnist for CounterPunch
(, he also writes frequently for Extra! (
and Salon magazine (, as well as for Businessweek, The Nation
and Treasury & Risk Management Magazine. In the late 1970s, he ran the Daily
News bureau covering Los Angeles County government, and in the mid-'90s,
spent several years as a correspondent in Hong Kong and China for
Businessweek. Over the years he has written for such publications as Rolling
Stone, Mother Jones, Village Voice, Forbes, The London Observer and the
Australian National Times.

Dave Lindorff is a frequent contributor to Global Research.

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