24. U.S. Nuclear Weapons Controlled by Unstable Personnel

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

Source: MOTHER JONES, November 1998, Title: “Positive Attitude Toward Nuclear Weapons Duty,” Author: Ken Silverstein

Faculty Evaluator: Lynn Cominsky, Ph.D.
Student Evaluator: Jake Medway

Mentally unstable individuals may be in control of U.S. nuclear devices. A screening process called the Personnel Reliability Program (PRP), set in place after a near-disaster in 1959, is supposed to guarantee that only competent, stable, and dependable individuals have access to America’s nuclear arsenal. In fact, the PRP looks mainly for self-announced kooks and fails to identify less sensational cases. As a result, numerous unstable individuals are in control of, and have access to, our nuclear weapons.

PRP is a two-step process consisting of an initial screening and post-approval monitoring. Investigators look for traits such as good social adjustment, emotional stability, and a positive attitude toward nuclear weapons duty. Screening includes a cursory medical evaluation, a review of the candidate’s personnel file, and a background check of profes-sional, educational, and personal histories. However, no routine psychological testing is done. Between 1990 and 1996, 7,000 people were decertified after passing the PRP screening. These thousands were either temporarily or permanently barred from nuclear weapons duties due to various, sometimes emotional, problems on the job.

Candidates can easily lie about their records with little chance of getting caught. FBI background checks only pick up 5 to 8 percent of people who have had trouble with the law, allowing numerous “bad apples” to receive high security clearance positions. According to the Pentagon’s 1996 annual status report on PRP, 758 people were kicked out of the program that year. Out of those, 169 were expelled due to conviction by a military or a civilian court of a serious offense or a pattern of behavior showing contemptuous attitude towards the law.

In several cases, PRP-certified people have gone on to commit murder or suicide, assault, rape, and other serious crimes, exposing unstable mental conditions in their past and present. In one case, where a naval technician committed a murder of two elderly people, investigators were tipped off to his potential violence through interviews with the officer’s acquaintances from before his recruitment. These interviews revealed a history including such warning signs as suspected murder, wife beating, lying, stealing, and “continuous fantasizing.” A sonar technician who was expelled from PRP for failing a drug test stated that abuses that should be grounds for expulsion are frequently ignored. An expelled PRP Marine claimed that heavy drinking and depression are overlooked. There have even been cases of people drinking while on PRP duty. In certain cases, individuals still had their PRP clearance while in prison for a felony conviction. One Marine explained that manpower demand at special weapons stations far exceeds the number of qualified personnel.

Herbert L. Abrams, PRP expert at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, recom-mends that the Pentagon strengthen PRP by requiring a physician to examine all candidates, have standardized psycho-logical testing, and improve its post-approval monitoring procedures. Others insist that the entire program be subjected to tough independent scrutiny.

UPDATE BY AUTHOR KEN SULVERSTEIN: This story is important because even if the risks of a problem are relatively small, the consequences of any problem could be enormous. What are the risks? It is hard to say for certain, especially given the Pentagon’s refusal to open up its records on the PRP. Still, the fact that a few people involved with the program were willing to talk to me (off the record) about their fears, shows that some key insiders believe the screening system is dangerously inadequate.

No significant new developments have occurred since the story was published, at least that I know of. However, since the Pentagon is generally not eager to disclose problems with the program, it is impossible to know for certain.

There has been no fallout in the mainstream press. I think this is for two reasons. First, it is not exactly the type of story that you can follow up on as, for example, with a campaign finance scandal, where there are always sure to be plenty of emerging developments.

Also, this is the type of story that is unlikely to get a sharp examination until a problem comes to light (in other words, when it is too late). There is no organization that rigorously tracks the PRP. For anyone wanting to do follow-up research, I recommend contacting the sources named in the story. (Or contact me to see about the unnamed sources.)