The stretch of Interstate 80 between Cheyenne, Wyoming and Lincoln, Nebraska is straight and flat. High plains stretch out on either side.
But scattered along this unremarkable road, the Air Force keeps some of its most powerful weapons—Minuteman III nuclear missiles.
Outsiders are rarely allowed to see the missiles up close. But in the wake of a scandal earlier this year, the Air Force has allowed some media, including NPR, a rare glimpse at America's nuclear deterrence.
Traveling to the missile fields isn't done by helicopter or Humvee. Instead, we're riding in a Ford Taurus with 168,000 miles on it.
"It's our chariot," chuckles Lt. Raj Bansal, of the Air Force's 90th Missile Wing. Capt. Joseph Shannon, who's riding shotgun, is quick to chime in: "The key is to get us there safely," he says.
Shannon and Bansal are on their way out for a shift, or "alert" as it's known in the missile business. For the next 24 hours they will be responsible for 10 nuclear weapons. They will oversee security and maintenance. And if the order comes, they will launch these warheads within a matter of minutes (the exact time it takes is classified).
Will they ever get a coded message from the President ordering them to unleash their weapons?
"I think it's something everybody thinks about when they get the job," Bansal says. "I mean you're basically eating most of your meals when you're on alert next to the keys and switches that would cause that act."
"That act" — it's hard for even these officers to discuss a nuclear exchange. And, these days, most Americans don't talk about it at all. Bansal's friends know where he works but don't have a clue what he does.
"A lot of them are like, 'Hey, why are you complaining? You don't really do anything," he says.
There is some truth in that: Nuclear deterrence is, at its heart a job of inaction. These two train constantly to launch a massive nuclear strike at a moment's notice. But they're unlikely to ever get that order.
Captain Shannon sees it differently. "I wouldn't say our job is not to do something; the job of deterrence is actually working. Adversaries know that the missiles are there — they're in place and they will be used," he says. "If that's sitting in the back of their mind, they won't do certain actions to cause them to be used."
And in practice, keeping the missiles on alert is a grueling task. Front-line crews can be on 24-hour-alert twice a week. They also spend days being trained and tested on procedures. Until recently, the Air Force has kept staffing to a minimum, and so crew members often were called in for extra shifts. Add in the lengthy drives to and from these remote bases, and these officers can spend more than a week on the job. Shannon has missed his daughter's recitals. Bansal has spent holidays underground.
We pull off the highway and turn left. Past Dix, Nebraska, the road turns to gravel. Eventually we arrive at what looks like just another ranch house.
At the gate, we're greeted by Tech. Sgt. Raymond Kaiser. "Mr. Brumfiel: Status? Are you under any form of duress?" he asks me. The question seems odd in the empty flatlands of western Nebraska.
Kaiser is responsible for maintaining the above-ground portion of this command center. It looks surprisingly comfortable inside: There's a pool table, a workout room, and television. This is where a cook, support staff, and a heavily armed security force live.
The controls to the missiles themselves are 60 feet underground.
We pass through a final checkpoint and open the door to the elevator. At the entrance they've added decorative touch: a giant mural of Mario, the cartoon plumber from the video game. At the bottom, Mario stands next to a mushroom cloud. Missile crews are known for their dark humor.
"Stand clear!," yells Bansal as he pulls open an enormous two-foot thick blast door, eight tons of solid steel.
On the other side, Lt. Kirsten Clark and her deputy are just finishing up their shift in "the capsule," as crews call it. The room is hollowed out, like a concrete egg. In the middle, suspended on shock absorbers, hangs the launch control center, a room within a room. It's long and narrow, with a bed at one end and a toilet at the other. In between, two chairs face computer displays.
Clark hands over her command to Shannon. No security or maintenance in progress. "We've got television working today for once," she adds.
TV is allowed down here. Crews have long periods of down time where they still have to keep alert, especially at night.
"Usually I like movies, because they make the time go by faster; sometimes I watch the cooking channel or the news," she says. Last night Mulan II was on. Clark also spent time reviewing top-secret procedures for her weapons.
With the handover complete, Bansal and Shannon are now the final link in a system stretching from the President of the United States to these missiles.
The missiles themselves are displayed in a grid on the computer console.
"This is actually gaining status from 10 nuclear missiles, which is kind of crazy to think about, I mean when you've been at this screen from 80-something alerts, you kind of lose sight of what it actually is," he says.
Each missile is just a tiny rectangle on the screen. It makes the enormity of the job seem small and abstract. And maybe the people we're asking to do this need it that way; to let them get on with the day-to-day of keeping the weapons ready.
"There's no emotional thoughts going into this, it's our job and this is what we're going to do," Shannon says. "Now if we're topside actually seeing things, I think that's totally different. But down here, this is what we see, something on the screen, and that's it."
Shannon and Bansal settle in for their alert. At its heart, this is what nuclear deterrence comes down to: two officers, 60 feet underground. Working, watching movies, and waiting.
Just off the train from the Newport Folk Festival, Bob Boilen jumps at the chance to share a song by The Oh Hellos, his favorite discovery of the weekend. On "The Valley," the Texas band thunders and strums its way to a glorious sing-along chorus. Robin Hilton follows that with a premiere from Frazey Ford, whose soulful voice reinforces the celebratory mood of "September Fields."
Bob takes us in a different direction with Sun Kil Moon's devastating "Carissa," Mark Kozelek's autobiographical account of the freak accident that killed his cousin. Feeling the need to brighten the room a bit, Robin plays Fences' bouncy pop tune "Arrows," featuring a guest verse from Macklemore and production by Ryan Lewis.
Later in the show, Bob shares GOAT's "Hide From The Sun" before Robin plays new music from the full-throttle, jangly, punk rock trio Spider Bags.
Bob closes out the show with Zola Jesus' "Dangerous Days," a high-powered dance-rock tune that gives him the energy needed to pick up his suitcase and get home for some much-needed sleep.
If you want to hear more from the Newport Folk Festival, we've got sets from Jenny Lewis, Jeff Tweedy and lots more at our Newport Folk hub.
A jury has awarded former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura $1.8 million in a defamation suit against a deceased author.
The jury on Tuesday determined that Ventura was the figure described as a "celebrity" Navy SEAL in Chris Kyle's 2012 book American Sniper.
The SEAL was called "Scruff Face" in the book, but Kyle later identified him as Ventura, who became a professional wrestler and one-term independent governor after leaving the Navy.
Kyle wrote that in 2006 he had decked Ventura in a bar in California, after Ventura said that he hated America and that Navy SEALs "deserve to lose a few."
Ventura denied having said any such thing and said the account had hurt his career, as well as his standing among the community of SEALs. Kyle died last year but Ventura sued his estate.
"The verdict will tell the world Chris Kyle's story was a lie," David Bradley Olsen, Ventura's attorney, said. "One-point-five million people have bought the book. Millions more heard Fox TV trash Jesse Ventura because of it. And the story went viral on the Internet and will be there forever."
In testimony videotaped prior to his death, Kyle stood by his account.
"Legal experts had said Ventura had to clear a high legal bar to win, since as a public figure he had to prove 'actual malice,' " The Associated Press reports. "According to the jury instructions, Ventura had to prove with 'clear and convincing evidence' that Kyle either knew or believed what he wrote was untrue, or that he harbored serious doubts about its truth.
The jury voted 8-2 in favor of Ventura, awarding him $500,000 in defamation charges and $1.345 million for "unjust enrichment."
Jurors had been instructed to reach a unanimous verdict, but were unable to do so. Federal rules allow for split verdicts, if both sides agree.
"The decision came just a day after the jury sent a note to court saying it could not reach a verdict after five days of deliberation," Minnesota Public Radio reports. "U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle (no relation to Chris Kyle) told jurors to 'take one more shot' at coming to a consensus."
An American court has ordered U.S Marshals to seize $100 million worth of oil sitting in a tanker off the coast of Galveston, Texas. But that oil may never reach American shores.
The oil comes from Kurdistan, a semiautonomous region in northern Iraq. In recent weeks, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has been sending oil through a pipeline to Turkey and attempting to sell it overseas.
The hitch is that Iraq's central government says the oil belongs to the nation — a stance supported by the international oil market.
"We believe that Iraq's energy resources belong to the Iraqi people and certainly have long stated that it needs to go through the central government," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told Bloomberg News.
A court agreed with Iraq's claim late Monday night.
"You have to have a pretty strong appetite for litigation to buy Iraqi oil which comes from the KRG, because it is pretty clear to most parties that the marketing and export of oil from a country is a right which accrues to the national government," David Goldwyn, a former special envoy for international energy affairs at the State Department, told NPR's Jackie Northam recently.
That has interfered with Kurdish hopes of carrying out oil sales, and with them gaining more economic power and international recognition.
Four tankers carrying 4 million barrels of Kurdish oil have set sail from the Turkish port of Ceyhan since May, but only one shipment has been offloaded. The oil waiting near Galveston was intended for a company called Talmay Trading Inc., which is registered in the British Virgin Islands.
The American company that had been hired to offload the oil from the United Kalavrvta, AET Offshore Services, asked in a separate court filing for a restraining order so it could get out of the job. AET said it "would be placed at considerable risk if required to ... take possession of the cargo before those disputes and claims of ownership are resolved," according to Reuters.
As Jackie reported, Kurdish security forces, the peshmerga, now control major oil fields in northern Iraq. The territory may hold as much as 45 billion barrels of oil reserve.
But offloading and selling it is proving to be a difficult task.
"I think the KRG are in real trouble now because everything seems to have been laid on the hopes of making a breakthrough in sales, and they have been thwarted at each turn," Richard Mallinson, an analyst at the London-based research firm Energy Aspects, told The Wall Street Journal. "It does feel like their shot at getting into the market is exhausted."
It's not yet clear where the United Kalavrvta or the oil it's carrying will wind up.
"It wouldn't surprise me if it ends up sitting there for a little while or ends up going to another port," Jamie Webster, senior director of global oil markets for IHS, told the energy industry newsletter FuelFix.
A class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, which are used on a lot of big corn and soybean fields, have been getting a pretty bad rap lately.
Researchers have implicated these chemicals, which are similar to nicotine, as a contributor to the alarming decline of bee colonies. That led the European Union to place a moratorium on their use, and environmentalists want the U.S. to do the same.
In a study published July 24, researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey found that these chemicals are also leaching into streams and rivers in the Midwest — including the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. And that may be bad news for aquatic life in the region, the scientists say.
"We did the study because the use of the neonicotinoids has been increasing dramatically, especially in the Midwest," says Kathryn Kuivila, an environmental organic chemist with the USGS.
And since these chemicals are highly water soluble, it made sense to investigate whether they were present in the region's streams and rivers, Kuivila tells The Salt.
These pesticides aren't sprayed on. Instead, they're used to coat the seeds of many agricultural crops. But they still end up in the soil and then in the water that runs off farms.
Runoff transports the chemicals from the field to streams and rivers, and since they don't break down easily in the environment they can stick around in these bodies of water for long periods of time, the USGS study notes. And while they're not especially toxic to humans, they can harm a wide variety of insects. At certain concentrations, they can hurt other animals as well.
The USGS found three chemicals in particular to be especially prevalent throughout the region: clothianidin, thiamethoxam and imidacloprid. Clothianidin was found in three quarters of the 79 water samples that the researchers gathered in 2013 at nine different stream sites. The highest concentration they found was over 250 nanograms per litre. That's 250 parts per trillion — it doesn't sound like a whole lot, but Kuivila says it may be enough to affect wildlife.
Mike Leggett, a director of environmental policy at CropLife America, the trade group representing biotechnology companies including Bayer CropScience and Syngenta — both big manufacturers these pesticides — released a statement pointing out that the concentrations USGS found were far below the Environmental Protection Agency's benchmarks.
"The highest levels detected were at least 40 times lower than benchmarks established by EPA to be protective of aquatic life, and most detections were up to 1,000 times below that level," he writes.
Indeed, by the EPA's benchmark, clothianidin is toxic to invertebrates who are chronically exposed to the chemical only at levels higher than 1,100 nanograms per litre.
But recent research suggests that lower levels of these chemicals could also be toxic to aquatic life — including aquatic insects. And a study published in Nature found a correlation between these insecticides and declining bird populations, perhaps because the the chemicals are killing off insects that the birds eat, or because the birds are eating insecticide-coated seeds.
Researchers are also unsure of how exposure to multiple neonicotinoids may affect organisms, Kuiliva notes. And they don't know to what extent a combination of these insecticides and other pesticides is hurting wildlife, she says.
And while a tiny amount of these chemicals may not kill certain animals, it can still harm them, says Christian Krupke, an entomologist at Purdue University who wasn't involved in the study. "An insect doesn't have to be dead to not be functioning," he says.
Neonicotinoids affect insects' nervous systems. An insect exposed to a small amount of one of these chemicals may get disoriented, and may not be able find food or defend itself from predators.
"There's a lot we don't know," he says, despite the fact that neonicotinoids came out in the 1980s and 90s. "Something as basic as how much is in the water has just been found out now."