At core of nuke cheating ring: 4 ‘librarians’

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Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) Commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson speaks to reporters at the Pentagon, Thursday, March 27, 2014. The Air Force is firing nine mid-level commanders and disciplining dozens of junior officers at a nuclear missile base in response to an exam-cheating scandal that spanned a far longer period than originally reported. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) Commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson speaks to reporters at the Pentagon, Thursday, March 27, 2014. The Air Force is firing nine mid-level commanders and disciplining dozens of junior officers at a nuclear missile base in response to an exam-cheating scandal that spanned a far longer period than originally reported. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, accompanied by Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) Commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, take questions during a news conference at the Pentagon, Thursday, March 27, 2014. The Air Force is firing nine mid-level commanders and disciplining dozens of junior officers at a nuclear missile base in response to an exam-cheating scandal that spanned a far longer period than originally reported. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

This undated handout photo provided by the US Air Force shows Col. Robert Stanley II. The Air Force is firing nine mid-level commanders and disciplining dozens of junior officers at a nuclear missile base in response to an exam-cheating scandal that spanned a far longer period than originally reported. No Air Force general is being punished, but Stanley, the top commander at the Montana base, which is where the exam cheating was discovered in January, has resigned. (AP Photo/US Air Force)

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James accompanied by Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) Commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, speaks to reporters at the Pentagon, Thursday, March 27, 2014. The Air Force is firing nine mid-level commanders and disciplining dozens of junior officers at a nuclear missile base in response to an exam-cheating scandal that spanned a far longer period than originally reported. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Investigators dubbed them “the librarians,” four Air Force nuclear missile launch officers at the center of a still-unfolding scandal over cheating on proficiency tests.

“They tended to be at the hub” of illicit exchanges of test information, says Adam Lowther, one of seven investigators who dug into details of cheating that has embarrassed the Air Force and on Thursday brought down virtually the entire operational command of the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont.

At least 82 missile launch officers face disciplinary action, but it was the four “librarians” who allegedly facilitated the cheating, in part by transmitting test answers via text message. One text included a photo of a classified test answer, according to Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, who announced the probe’s findings Thursday.

Wilson said the four junior officers were at “the crux of it,” and that three of the four also are accused of illegal drug activity. The rest of the accused either participated in cheating or were aware of it but failed to blow the whistle, Wilson said.

In response, the Air Force fired nine midlevel commanders at Malmstrom and announced it will pursue a range of disciplinary action against the accused 82, possibly to include courts-martial. A 10th commander, the senior officer at the base, resigned and will retire from the Air Force.

Air Force officials called the discipline unprecedented in the history of America’s intercontinental ballistic missile force. The Associated Press last year revealed a series of security and other problems in the ICBM force, including a failed safety and security inspection at Malmstrom, where the exam cheating occurred.

Lowther said the investigations team interviewed missile launch officers and others at the Air Force’s two other ICBM bases and found no indication of cheating there.

“Folks clearly crossed the line at Malmstrom,” Lowther said in a telephone interview. He is a faculty member at the Air Force Research Institute at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.

In an emotion-charged resignation letter titled “A Lesson to Remember,” Col. Robert Stanley, who commanded the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom, lamented that the reputation of the ICBM mission was now “tarnished because of the extraordinarily selfish actions of officers entrusted with the most powerful weapon system ever devised by man.”

Stanley, seen as a rising star in the Air Force, had been nominated for promotion to brigadier general just days before the cheating scandal came to light in January. Instead he is retiring, convinced, as he wrote in his farewell letter Thursday, that “we let the American people down on my watch.”

Separately, another of the Air Force’s nuclear missile units — the 90th Missile Wing at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo. — announced that it had fired the officer overseeing its missile squadrons. It said Col. Donald Holloway, the operations group commander, was sacked “because of a loss of confidence in his ability to lead.”

The 90th Missile Wing offered no further explanation for Holloway’s removal and said it “has nothing to do” with the firings announced by the Air Force in Washington.

Together, the extraordinary moves reflect turmoil in a force that remains central to American defense strategy but in some ways has been neglected. 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.

In a bid to correct root causes of the missile corps’ failings — including low morale and weak management — the Air Force also announced Thursday a series of new or expanded programs to improve leadership development, to modernize the three ICBM bases and to reinforce “core values,” including integrity.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, the service’s top civilian official, told a Pentagon news conference that a thorough review of how testing and training are conducted in the ICBM force has produced numerous avenues for improvements.

“We will be changing rather dramatically how we conduct

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