Edward Warren was shocked when he learned that the soldiers in charge of the nation's nuclear-tipped missiles regularly cheated on tests.
In 2009, Warren was fresh out of the Air Force's Recruit Officers' Training Corps. He had just finished training to become a missile launch officer, when he was pulled aside.
"One of my instructors said, 'Hey, just so you know, there is cheating that goes on at the missile bases,'" Warren recalls. "I was repulsed, I thought, 'This can't be, this is terrible.'"
But while serving at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming from 2009-2013, Warren saw lots of cheating. The cause, according to Warren and other former missile launch officers reached by NPR, was a culture driven by constant demand for perfection.
Promotions hinged on perfect test scores, and young officers had a choice, he says: "Take your lumps and not have much of a career, or join in with your fellow launch officers and help each other out, and that is what most people did."
This month, the Air Force is scheduled to release the results of its investigation of cheating at another missile base: Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.
Already, Air Force officials have publically stated that 34 officers have admitted to cheating, and dozens more knew about it. The Air Force has since investigated testing at the two other bases where nuclear missiles are kept: F.E. Warren and Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, but they have not yet released the results.
In January, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told reporters she thought the cheating ran deep: "We do have systemic problems within the force," she said.
Interviews suggest cheating may have been widespread for years in the missile forces.
NPR reached eight former missile officers including Warren for this story, who served over decades. All but one admitted that they had participated in some kind of cheating on tests. What's more, they described a culture of cheating that permeated throughout the remote bases which stand guard over the nation's nuclear stockpile.
Being a missile launch officer is a grueling job. Warren and his deputy would regularly drive out onto the windswept planes of Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska. Often they'd pull off the highway onto a remote road to what might be mistaken for a little ranch house. But beneath it was a fortified nuclear bunker crammed with communications equipment, a toilet and a bed.
Warren and his second-in-command spent 24 hours below, in direct control of ten, nuclear tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. Their job basically came down to this: wait for a launch order from the president of the United States. And if it ever came, launch their missiles. Fast.
"Very fast. The actual number is classified," he says. (Other former missileers told me they could launch within about a minute.)
It's a job where mistakes aren't tolerated, and everything must be done by the book. There really is a book, several actually, filled with hundreds of checklists. Checklists for everything, from launching a nuke, to letting a maintenance crew into a missile silo, right down to getting lunch.
"Whatever you did, whatever action you were taking, you had to be open to the correct checklist," he says.
Missileers are tested three times a month to make sure they know their checklists. To sit in the bunker, to be in charge of the weapons, you have to get better than 90 percent on every test.
But Warren soon discovered the tests are used in another way. Because this is a job that everyone is supposed to do in exactly the same way, the tests became a way for the leadership to decide who got ahead.
"It was pretty obvious that if you wanted to succeed, you wanted to move up, you had to meet that near perfection, you know, 100 percent average, as close as you possibly could to that, or you wouldn't get promoted," he says.
Cheating was especially common for those just joining the missile forces. The so-called Emergency War Order tests, designed to check whether missileers knew when to launch their weapons, were fiendishly complex. Messing up a test could derail a career.
"Most of the time what it really involved was just the senior launch officers looking out for the more junior launch officers, maybe checking their answers before the test was handed in and saying, 'Hey, look out for number five or eleven,'" he says.
Warren counts himself among the cheaters. "I looked out for the more junior launch officers when I was a commander; I made sure they didn't fail, and I received similar help when I was a young officer," he says.
Others went further by doing things like hiding answers in their flight suits, or looking over the other guy's shoulder. At Malmstrom, the 32 officers stand accused sending and receiving answer sets as text messages.
Most officers NPR spoke to agree that cheating was seen as necessary in a culture that demanded perfection. "Everybody I know that cheated did so to survive," says Brian Weeden, another former missile launch officer. "Given a choice, any other choice, I don't know of anybody who would have done it."
Weeden, Warren and others also agreed that most really do know how to do their jobs. Every month, missile officers are also thrown into simulators, and observed by instructors. There's no cheating and they still get it right.
After he finished his tour, Edward Warren left the Air Force. He was proud of his service, but he was tired of having to cheat to get ahead. He's hopeful the Air Force will make changes.
The simplest, he says, is to stop using test scores to determine promotions. More generally, he believes the missile forces must realize that its officers will make an occasional mistake in reading through the hundreds of checklists they have to follow. If they do, there are still plenty of back-up systems that will protect against an accident.
Accepting mistakes in a culture of nuclear weapons may sound unacceptable, but Warren says that the current system is worse. "Right now what we're doing is setting a standard of perfection, of 100 percent all the time, and no one can achieve that," he says. "A perfection standard is no standard at all."
Last week, the city of Jackson, Miss., paid its last respects to Chokwe Lumumba. And according to R.L. Nave of the Jackson Free Press, the affair was the kind of black nationalist/pan-Africanist celebration you might expect for one of the nation's most outspoken black activists:
They came in suits, dresses, dashikis and tunics.
They wore an assortment of headwear, everything from riding caps to berets, kufis, hijab and headwraps.
They invoked Jesus Christ, Allah and the Yoruba orishas. [...]
The program last almost five hours and included several musical and poetry tributes.
Jackson State University professor C. Liegh McInnis recited an original poem he wrote titled "Free the Land Man," a reference to the phrase with which Lumumba often began speeches. McInnis described Lumumba as "our own Afro-American Robin Hood with MXG on his chest," referring to the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, an organization Lumumba co-founded.
During his life, Lumumba had big plans for black people. As an attorney, he defended Black Panthers and advocated for reparations for slavery. And at one point, he was the vice president of the Republic of New Afrika, intended to be an independent black nation carved out of the American South.
But during the last eight months of his life, he was the mayor of Jackson, Miss., and he was managing more quotidian political concerns: he needed the streets fixed.
"In his short term in his office, his crowning achievement was raising the local sales tax to fix potholes," Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, told me. "And he earned high marks by focusing on the things that mayors are supposed to focus on."
And a lot of the other stuff was beyond his purview. "There was nothing in the Jackson city charter that would have allowed him to turn it into the Republic of New Afrika," Gillespie quipped.
Even his skeptics conceded how effective Lumumba had been at building coalitions and working with business leaders during his short tenure. "I must confess to you that this time last year, I was concerned [he] was going to divide the city," Bill Winter, the state's former governor, said at Lumumba's funeral. "I could not have been more wrong."
("I guess they were expecting a monster," Lumumba said last month. "And I'm just Chokwe Lumumba, the same person I've always been.")
It made us wonder, though: just how did a black revolutionary who still threw up the Black Power salute on occasion become the mayor of a mid-sized American city in the Deep South?
Gillespie told me that those things aren't necessarily in tension: part of the reason Lumumba was able to sell wonky, pragmatic things like raising taxes to fix the streets and sewers (the increase needed to be voted on, and needed a 60-percent majority to pass) was because he had that revolutionary street cred. Lumumba's background might have effectively disqualified him from seeking elected office in another city, but Jackson is 80-percent black and was the home of prominent civil rights activists like Medgar Evers and his wife, Myrlie Evers-Williams. Gillespie said that context was a big reason Jacksonians would be less inclined to hold his radical past against Lumumba.
And Lumumba, notably, never distanced himself from that past. The day after he was elected mayor, he openly questioned the historical importance of Christopher Columbus and suggested that the city's overwhelmingly black schools might pursue a more Afrocentric curriculum.
But Gillespie told me that it was a little odd that Lumumba's background proved to be an asset in 2013. There are lots of folks who went from marching and protesting to hold elected office — among others, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia and Atlanta's former mayor Andrew Young were both lieutenants of Martin Luther King, while the former Black Panther Bobby Rush has been in Congress for decades — but Gillespie said they assumed office when black politics was more left of center. "Part of it was the novelty of it ... it was the first time that blacks would have been running for election and could have won," she said. "You get your Richard Hatchers, your Coleman Youngs, your people coming out of the movement running for office."
Today's black elected officials tend to pitch themselves as moderates or market-oriented technocrats like Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who was formerly the mayor of Newark.
(Lumumba's victory also owes itself to the idiosyncrasies of Jackson's political system and environment. The city is overwhelmingly Democratic, and Lumumba needed only to force and win a runoff with other Democratic candidates to effectively win the mayoralty.)
Ravi Perry, a professor of political science at Mississippi State University, says that Lumumba had a noticeable effect on the city's politics. Prior to his time as a council member and mayor, Perry says that the city's politicians were inclined to a "classic conservative civil rights agenda style" — that is, conservative in approach, if not ideology.
But Perry says Lumumba was more hands-on, more grassroots. He brought some of his activist organizing principles with him to City Hall. "He, for instance, got elected because his people's forums — which he had every three months as a councilman — were so popular," the writer and activist dream hampton told NPR's Michel Martin. "The people of Jackson just didn't have experience with having the kind of direct communication and then results from that communication, those forums in their city. They didn't have that kind of experience of open forum and participatory democracy."
His mayoral platform would come out of those People's Assemblies.
Perry compared Lumumba to Harold Washington, Chicago's first African American mayor. Like Washington, Perry said, Lumumba didn't shy away from talking about race, but he managed to win converts and allies to his practical governing approach. "Even though his views were not mainstream, he was able to convince people that he could govern in a mainstream way without selling out to only support middle-class values and without selling out his own values and vision," Perry told me. "In a city that's hindered by poverty, in a state that's last on every list, for him to be able to convince people in that city that there was a new possible vision, that's a remarkable rhetorical feat."
But also like Washington, Perry says Lumumba's death during his first mayoral term might give many folks reason to wonder about the long-term viability of their political approaches and concerns. "Running [and winning] on lower-class interest and running for re-election on lower class interests in a city that isn't particularly progressive ... there's kind of a question [as to whether that can work]."
This post updated at 11:30 a.m. ET.
New York firefighters are responding to an explosion and collapse of a five-story apartment building in the Harlem area of Manhattan. Officials say at least one person is dead and 17 injured.
"The cause of the explosion is undetermined at this time," said police spokesman Martin Speechley was quoted by Reuters as saying.
"It's a very active scene. It's a very chaotic scene," said Fire Department spokesman Michael Parrella.
The fire department says the explosion occurred at 1646 Park Ave.
The FDNY tells Reuters that at least one person has been killed and 17 people injured in the explosion and collapse that occurred between 9 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. ET.
Con Ed tweets that its workers were responding to a report of a gas odor at 1652 Park. The utility says the call came in at 9:13 a.m. and that crews were dispatched a few minutes later and arrived on the scene after the explosion.
Live television footage from the scene shows at least four fire department ladders squads pouring water on the burning debris as heavy smoke billowed off the wreckage.
The New York Times says witnesses reported hearing what sounded like an explosion before the collapse occurred.
CBS New York quotes one witness, Samuel Paul, as saying the building suddenly shook.
"We saw a whole lot of smoke. A lot of smoke came out," Paul told CBS 2. "There's a lot of dark smoke still coming out. A lot of fire engines I saw going to 125th Street."
"The smoke started to rise. It looked like something fell because it wasn't like a fire. It just looked like debris smoke, similar to 9/11," he added.
The Daily News quotes another witness, Ashley Rivera, as saying "for weeks [tenants] have been smelling gas."
Rivera said when the explosion occurred, "We saw people flying out of the window ... Those are my neighbors."
Reuters says commuter trains were stopped on nearby tracks and passengers were ordered off the Metro-North Railroad cars at the Fordham stop in the Bronx, passengers said.
A "quick-moving, monstrous blaze" on Tuesday destroyed a nine-story apartment building that was under construction in San Francisco's Mission Bay neighborhood.
The San Francisco Chronicle adds that "firefighters were able to keep the blaze from spreading to nearby structures."
Our colleagues at KQED live blogged as the story unfolded. They report there was at least one injury: A firefighter "suffered burns to his face and hands." The city's fire chief, Joanne Hayes-White, tells local news outlets that this was the city's biggest fire in at least several years.
According to the Chronicle, "fire investigators believe that whatever sparked the blaze had as long as an hour to smolder. The building's sprinkler system had not yet been installed." Construction was set to be completed later this year.
Since last summer, Jasmine Garsd has been co-hosting NPR Music's Alt.Latino from Mexico City, where she's reporting on the area's music and culture for NPR. This week, she reunites with her Alt.Latino co-host Felix Contreras in Austin to celebrate the debut of SXAméricas, a new branch of SXSW geared to connect U.S Hispanics, Latin American and Spanish industry thought leaders. The pair spun tracks at the SXAméricas Opening Night Mixer last night, and tomorrow, will host an intimate chat with French-Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux, whose new album is streaming at NPR Music.
Before leaving for Texas, Garsd put down her mic just long enough to tell us a few stories of her own. If you're at SXSW this week, we hope you'll catch up with her and the rest of the NPR Music team! (And if you're not in Austin, put on some headphones and get there with this SXAméricas Mix from Alt.Latino and NPR Music's Austin 100 sampler).
My name is... Jasmine Garsd
Public radio employee since... 2008
Public radio listener since... 2002, when I moved to the U.S., I got hooked!
My job is... I co-host Alt.Latino, and I report on Latino and Latin American issues for NPR.
My favorite Alt.Latino moment was... we've done a lot of cool interviews - Pedro Almodovar, Manu Chao, Puerto Rican rap duo Calle 13. But honestly my favorite moments are the small ones in which Felix [Contreras] and I crack up until we just can't even keep it together on air. One time I remember Fe kept accidentally calling this woman 'pelusa' which means 'dust glob,' in Spanish and we just had to stop the taping because we couldn't keep a straight face.
I wanted to be.... a costume and makeup person when I grew up. I studied makeup and stage design for Opera for a bit at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires.
In my suitcase, you'll find... my grandfather's poncho, which I travel with for good luck; my recorder, and a good book. Right now I'm re-reading Octavio Paz' Labyrinth Of Solitude, so you'd find that.
The one thing everyone should know about Mexico is... a lot of bad news comes out of Mexico to the world, but it's a magical, breathtaking and very intellectually-stimulating place. The other day I was jogging at the park by my house - Lago de Chapultepece - and I kept passing through these enormous ancient pre-Colombian statues of heads that are about 12 feet tall, and it occurred to me that I live in a very, very special place.
My next gadget will be... I need a faster way to get around Mexico City. I want to get a motorcycle, but probably I'm just saying that to impress you and will end up buying a bicycle. Or even a tricycle.
If I could share a coffee with anyone... it would be [Spanish filmmaker] Pedro Almodovar. I think he's brilliant. Or flamenco singer Concha Buika. We interviewed both this year, and I fell even more in love with them.
Tell Me More... about your story. [On] one radio show I would listen to as a kid - once a week the host would ask listeners to call in and say 'What is your master problem in life at this moment?' You'd think you got a lot of whining, but in the end people would call in with some fantastic stories (one listener called in every week complaining about a ghost), ethical concerns, moral dilemmas and everything in between. I learned that everyone has something interesting to say if you listen hard enough.
On Sunday morning, you'll find me... waking up hanging by my jacket from a chandelier wondering what on earth happened. NOT TRUE! You'll find me having a cup of coffee with a friend or a newspaper.
Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me... that I'm running out of Game Of Thrones episodes to catch up on. I have no idea what I'm going to do once that happens. Maybe I'll go out into the sunlight.
I'm not as... outgoing as I sound. I actually am pretty shy, which is why I chose a career that lets me talk to people in a dark studio behind a mic ;)
The one word I always stumble over on air is... I can't quite pronounce 'au' or 'eu' in English. I get very neurotic when I have to say the word 'neurotic,' and don't get me started on 'astronaut'.
I use social media to... keep in touch with friends and family, share ideas, keep tabs on my sworn enemies.
Caitlin Sanders contributed to this post.