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Missile Crew Discharged After Falling Asleep While Holding Classified Launch Code Devices

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BISMARCK, N.D. — The Air Force discharged three North Dakota ballistic missile crew members who fell asleep while holding classified launch code devices, the military announced Tuesday. Officials said the codes were outdated and remained secure at all times.

The crew members were discharged last Thursday under orders from Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, said spokeswoman Laurie Arellano. They had been barred from working around nuclear weapons and classified material since the July 12, 2008 incident, she said.

The crew members were coming off a shift at a missile alert facility about 70 miles from Minot Air Force Base when they fell asleep in a secure crew rest area, Arellano said. The crew had with them code components – classified devices that allow them to communicate with missiles. Launch codes are part of the components, which were described as large, metal boxes.

One of the three crew members notified senior officers that they had fallen asleep, Arellano said.

The lapse prompted an investigation by the 91st Missile Wing, codes experts at the 20th Air Force, U.S. Strategic Command and the National Security Agency. The probe found the launch codes were outdated and had remained secure.

"A command investigation was immediately initiated and concluded there was no actual compromise of classified information," Arellano said.

The incident was one of a series of missteps involving the Minot base, which has been under scrutiny since August 2007 when a B-52 bomber mistakenly armed with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles flew from there to Barksdale Air Force Base, La. About 65 of the 3,700 airmen at the bomber wing were sanctioned as a result of that incident.

The investigation into the sleeping crew members concluded the codes had remained in their containers, which have combination locks that can be opened only by the crew. The containers remained with the crew at all times, and the facility is guarded by armed security forces, Arellano said.

Each of the crew members – two first lieutenants and a captain from the Minot Air Force Base's 91st Missile Wing – was given an Article 15, a punishment under military law for "dereliction of duty, unsatisfactory performance and misconduct," Arellano said.

"For an officer, an Article 15 is considered to be detrimental to their career standing," she said.

In other incidents involving the Minot base, a vehicle carrying a rocket booster for an unarmed Minuteman III ballistic missile overturned July 31, 2008, while being transported from the base to a launch facility in northwestern North Dakota. The military estimated it spent about $5.6 million to recover the rocket from a ditch.

And a court-martial is pending for a Minot officer accused of stealing a missile launch control device, allegedly because he wanted a souvenir.

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