Bowe Bergdahl, the Army sergeant who has been recovering in Germany after five years as a Taliban captive, returned to the United States early Friday to continue his medical treatment.
A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, said Bergdahl flew to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio from Ramstein Air Base.
While at the Texas Army base, Bergdahl “will continue the next phase of his reintegration process,” Kirby said, adding there was no timeline for the process.
“Our focus remains on his health and well-being,” he said. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel “is confident that the Army will continue to ensure that Sgt. Bergdahl receives the care, time and space he needs to complete his recovery and reintegration,” the spokesman said in a statement.
The Idaho native was expected to be reunited with his family in San Antonio. He was captured in Afghanistan in June 2009 and released by the Taliban on May 31 in a deal struck by the Obama administration in which five senior Taliban officials were released from detention at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Before his departure from Germany on Thursday, officials in Washington said Bergdahl will not receive the automatic Army promotion that would have taken effect this month if he were still in captivity. Now that he is back in U.S. military control, any future promotions would depend on his performance and achievement of certain training and education milestones.
Officials previously had said the intention was for Bergdahl to be reunited with his family at Brooke and to spend an undetermined period there in further recuperation.
Officials have kept a lid on details of Bergdahl’s condition out of concern that he not be rushed back into the public spotlight after a lengthy period in captivity and amid a public uproar over the circumstances of his capture and release.
Officials also said Thursday that the Army has not yet formally begun a new review into the circumstances of Bergdahl’s capture and whether he walked away without leave or was deserting the Army when he was found and taken by insurgents.
The answers to those questions will be key to whether Bergdahl will receive more than $300,000 in back pay owed to him since he disappeared. If he was determined to have been a prisoner of war, he also could receive roughly another $300,000 or more, if recommended and approved by Army leaders.
Bergdahl had been at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany since June 1, the day after the prisoner exchange.
Many have criticized the Obama administration for agreeing to release five Taliban prisoners in exchange for Bergdahl. Some of Bergdahl’s former Army colleagues have accused him of deserting his post.
Critics also have said the five Taliban members could return to the battlefield. Administration officials have told Congress that four of the five Taliban officials likely will rejoin the fight.
In congressional testimony Wednesday, Hagel called the former Taliban government officials “enemy belligerents” but said they hadn’t been implicated in any attacks against the United States. He said Qatar, which has agreed to keep the five inside the country for a year, promised sufficient security measures to warrant making the swap for Bergdahl.
Hagel also said Bergdahl was early in the process of recovering from the trauma of captivity. He said that process began with his arrival at Landstuhl.
“He’s being held there because our medical professionals don’t believe he’s ready. … This isn’t just about a physical situation,” Hagel said. “This guy was held for almost five years in God knows what kind of conditions. … This is not just about can he get on his feet and walk and get to a plane.”
The three-star Army general who has headed the Defense Intelligence Agency for less than two years is being nudged aside amid conflict within the agency and between the general and leaders elsewhere in the intelligence community, a senior defense official said Wednesday.
Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and the DIA’s civilian deputy director, David Shedd, announced in a joint statement to the agency’s workforce that they plan to retire by early fall. They made no reference to their reasons.
A senior defense official said Flynn had already been considering retirement but was encouraged to leave early as a result of friction linked in part to Flynn’s aggressive efforts to shake up the way the DIA does business. The official spoke about the circumstances of Flynn’s departure on condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal matters.
The official said Shedd’s departure is unrelated to the conflict surrounding Flynn’s leadership.
In their joint statement to DIA workers, Flynn and Shedd said they were pleased with the changes that had occurred on their watch.
“We are proud of the legacy of sustained superb performance of the thousands of men and women we have served alongside throughout these many years,” they said.
The traditional role of the DIA has been to provide military intelligence, including insight into the makeup and capabilities of foreign military forces, to U.S. combat units and defense planners and policymakers. It also provides “strategic warning,” or the forewarning of imminent hostilities, insurgencies, attacks on the United States or its forces or allies, hostile reactions to U.S. reconnaissance activities and terrorist attacks.
Flynn, a career intelligence officer, has led the DIA since July 2012. Typically, the director’s post rotates among the Army, Navy and Air Force about every three or four years. Flynn’s predecessor, Lt. Gen. Ronald L. Burgess Jr., served a little over three years, as did Burgess’ predecessor, Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples.
Shedd became deputy director of the DIA in August 2010.
No one has been selected yet to succeed either Flynn or Shedd.
Service leaders took an assessment last year of the nuclear Air Force as an encouraging thumbs-up. Yet, in the months that followed, signs emerged that the nuclear missile corps was suffering from breakdowns in discipline, morale, training and leadership.
The former Air Force chief of staff who signed off on the 2013 report is now being asked to dig for root causes of problems that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says threaten to undermine public trust in the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
The Air Force may have taken an overly rosy view of the report — it was not uniformly positive — by a Pentagon advisory group headed by retired Gen. Larry Welch. The study described the nuclear Air Force as “thoroughly professional, disciplined” and performing effectively.
The inquiry itself may have missed signs of the kinds of trouble documented in recent months in a series of Associated Press reports. In April 2013, the month the Welch report came out, an Air Force officer wrote that the nuclear missile unit at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., was suffering from “rot,” including lax attitudes and a poor performance by launch officers on a March 2013 inspection.
An exam-cheating scandal at a nuclear missile base prompted the Air Force to remove nine midlevel commanders and accept the resignation of the base’s top commander. Dozens of officers implicated in the cheating face disciplinary action, and some might be kicked out, the Air Force said last week.
Welch began the new Hagel-directed review in early March, teaming with retired Navy Adm. John C. Harvey, who was not involved in the earlier reviews but has extensive nuclear experience. Much rides on what they find, not least because Hagel and the White House want to remove any doubt about the safety and security of the U.S. arsenal and the men and women entrusted with it.
Hagel’s written instruction to Welch and Harvey in February said they should examine the nuclear mission in both the Air Force and the Navy, focusing on “personnel, training, testing, command oversight, mission performance and investment” and recommend ways to address any deficiencies they identify.
A fighter pilot by training and a former top nuclear commander, Welch also is known for integrity and honesty. Hagel “believes there is no one better suited to examine these issues than General Welch,” Hagel’s press secretary, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, said Friday. “Like his partner Admiral Harvey, he’s tough and pragmatic. And he flat out knows his stuff.”
Welch led the initial outside review of arguably the most startling nuclear failure of recent years, the unauthorized movement in August 2007 of six nuclear-armed cruise missiles from an air base in North Dakota to Louisiana. Welch led that inquiry as chairman of a special task force of the Defense Science Board, which is a group of outside experts who advise the secretary of defense on a wide range of technical issues. The panel’s report was published in February 2008.
The same task force, again under Welch’s direction, published follow-up assessments in April 2011 and April 2013. Each of those examined both sides of the nuclear Air Force — strategic bombers as well as the intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, forces whose problems have gained wide attention over the past year.
The April 2011 study cited morale issues among missile crews.
“They perceive a lack of knowledge of and respect for their mission from within the larger Air Force,” it said.
The April 2013 report ticked off numerous significant improvements. It found that senior leaders were paying more attention, with more clarity of responsibility for the nuclear mission than in the years leading up to the 2007 mishap. The system of inspections and the support for nuclear personnel, logistics and facilities had improved. Yet at that point the first signs of new trouble had begun to emerge, including the mass suspension of 19 launch officers at Minot in April 2013, followed by a failed inspection in August at another nuclear missile base in Montana.
Welch’s report also cited “enduring issues that require more responsive attention.” And he said the Air Force needed to prove that the nuclear mission is the No. 1 priority it claims it to be. He also found that ground water intrusion in nuclear missile silos and the underground launch control posts to which they are connected had done major damage, including collapsing electrical conduits.
The bottom-line conclusion, however, was this:
“The nuclear force is professional, disciplined, committed and attentive to the special demands of the mission.”
The AP made a request last week through Pentagon channels for comment by Welch about his 2013 task force report, but he did not respond.
Shortly after Welch’s group completed that review, he briefed the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Mark Welsh. Welsh mentioned the briefing in an email to other generals in which he said the conclusions were reassuring.
“His view of mission performance was positive and didn’t identify any concerns that would lead me to believe there is a larger, hidden problem in this area,” Welsh wrote.
A spokeswoman for Welsh said this week that he saw the April 2013 report as addressing organizational and other aspects of the nuclear mission, not primarily the personnel and attitude issues.
Welsh, the Air Force chief, told the AP last November that he had been aware of bad behavioral trends in the ICBM force, including high rates of spouse abuse, and in fall 2012 had asked the top ICBM commander, Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, to fix that. Last October Carey was fired from his position after an Air Force investigation found he had engaged in inappropriate behavior while on an official visit to Russia last summer.
Maj. Megan Schafer, the spokeswoman for Welsh, said he has been diligent about implementing changes in the ICBM force as recommended by a string of official inquiries, including the 2013 Welch task force report.
Compared with 2010, when Welch’s study group had last examined the nuclear Air Force, morale had improved, he wrote. There remained skepticism, however, about promises of future improvements for the workforce.
“The force is patiently waiting for … visibly increased support for their daily mission work,” the report said.
That patience seems, however, to be wearing thin.
A swelling wave of problems inside the force responsible for the nation’s 450 ICBMs broke into the open last week with the unprecedented firing of nine midlevel commanders at an ICBM base in Montana, and the news that 90 or more junior officers there face disciplinary action for their role in an exam-cheating ring.
Extending a series of sackings of top ICBM leaders in recent months, the top operational commander at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, Col. Donald W. Holloway, was relieved of duty last week for reasons not publicly explained in full. F.E. Warren is home to 150 Minuteman 3 missiles and headquarters of the whole ICBM force.
Those are just a few examples of trouble facing the ICBM force. It also is caught in an unfinished criminal investigation of illegal drug use by at least three nuclear missile launch officers. More broadly, the Pentagon is looking for ways to fix what Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James calls “systemic” flaws that were years in the making in an ICBM force that operates largely out of the public spotlight with limited resources.
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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 testing and training going forward,” while ensuring that performance standards are kept high, James said. More funds will be invested in refurbishing the underground ICBM launch control centers and making other infrastructure improvements, she added.
Wilson, head of all Air Force nuclear forces as commander of Global Strike Command, said the changes in training and testing will be far-reaching.
“We’re not just putting a fresh coat of paint on these problems,” he said. “We’re taking bold action.”
James had promised to hold officers at Malmstrom accountable once the cheating investigation was completed and the scope of the scandal was clear. None of the nine fired commanders was directly involved in the cheating, but each was determined to have failed in his or her leadership responsibilities.
Wilson said investigators determined that the cheating, which officials originally said happened in August or September last year, began as early as November 2011 and continued until November 2013.
A total of 100 missile launch crew members were identified as potentially involved in the cheating, but nine were cleared by investigators. Another nine of the 100 are being handled separately by the Air Force Office of Special Investigation; eight of those nine involve possible criminal charges stemming from the alleged mishandling of classified information.
The cheating involved unauthorized passing of answers to exams designed to test missile launch officers’ proficiency in handling “emergency war orders,” which are messages involving the targeting and launching of missiles.
Nine key commanders below Stanley were fired, including the commanders of the 341st Wing’s three missile squadrons, each of which is responsible for 50 Minuteman 3 nuclear missiles.
Also sacked were the commander and deputy commander of the 341st Operations Group, which oversees all three missile squadrons as well as a helicopter unit and a support squadron responsible for administering monthly proficiency tests to Malmstrom’s launch crews and evaluating their performance.
No generals are being punished. Maj. Gen. Michael Carey, who was fired in October as commander of the 20th Air Force, which is responsible for all three 150-missile wings of the ICBM force, is still on duty as a staff officer at Air Force Space Command but has requested retirement; his request is being reviewed.
Carey was fired after a military investigation determined that he had engaged in inappropriate behavior while leading a U.S. government delegation to a nuclear security exercise in Russia last summer. He was replaced by Maj. Gen. Jack Weinstein.
The cheating at Malmstrom was discovered in early January during the course of an unrelated drug investigation that included two launch officers at Malmstrom and others at several other bases. The drug probe is continuing.
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