After five years exposing the struggles of the U.S. Air Force’s nuclear missile corps – security lapses, leadership and training failures, morale problems – Bob Burns uncovered an exclusive that was mind-blowing in every sense of the word: Airmen guarding a base in Wyoming had bought, distributed and used LSD.
Burns, a Washington-based national security writer, had to prod the Air Force for two years before it acknowledged details of a drug ring that operated undetected for months. The astonishing revelation that some of the nation’s most deadly weapons were in the hands of hallucinating airmen is the Beat of the Week.
“The seeds of the story were planted by the Air Force itself, not expecting it would grow to full flower,” Burns said.
In March 2016 the four-star general overseeing all Air Forces nuclear bombers and missiles announced that an investigation was under way at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, where 14 airmen were under suspicion for “drug activities.” He would not be more specific. No one outside the Air Force knew LSD was involved. Burns’ early reporting revealed that the airmen were accused of using cocaine, but he had no idea that hallucinogens were involved.
Burns knew from his previous reporting on the missile corps that illegal drug use was a recurring problem and that the Air Force was reluctant to discuss it. So once the court martial proceedings began later in 2016 he started filing FOIA requests for the transcripts and supporting legal documents.
In the meantime, he pursued other angles, including the question of whether Robert Work, who was deputy secretary of defense at the time, knew about the problem when he visited F.E. Warren just days before the probe was announced. Burns had accompanied Work on that visit, which included observing a demonstration by security forces of how they would go about recapturing an ICBM missile silo if attackers ever gained control. The demonstration was performed by the same security force whose members included the leader of the LSD drug ring.
In 2017, Burns tracked down Work, who had left his Pentagon post early in the Trump administration. He said he did not know about the drug investigation when he visited – and he was surprised to hear it involved LSD.
It took the Air Force well over a year to finish responding to Burns’ FOIA requests, but by January 2018 he had the bulk of the records he needed to piece together the story, including transcripts from seven military trials as well as related documents with telling inside details, including descriptions of drug experiences of airmen, ranging from panic to euphoria.
He received some guidance on the legal details from a source who felt the story needed to be told as fully as possible. Another source tipped him to the fact that the accused airman at F.E. Warren had used LSD with civilians who recently had finished their Air Force service, and another source confirmed this detail. He also consulted former Air Force legal officials and people who had studied the effects of LSD on human behavior.
Burns' story, unmatched by any other media outlet, triggered a spike in AP web traffic and was used or reported on by a slew of news providers, ranging from the Daily Mail and The Hill to Newsweek, ABC News and entertainment site TMZ, which used its own composite photo of a rainbow-colored mushroom cloud. It also was noted on MSNBC's “Rachel Maddow Show,” where the host praised the AP’s lead:
"One airman said he felt paranoia. Another marveled at the vibrant colors. A third admitted, 'I absolutely just loved altering my mind.' ... Meet service members entrusted with guarding nuclear missiles that are among the most powerful in America’s arsenal."
"Here is an amazing lead for you. This is how it's done. This is from AP reporter Robert Burns; here's how his story starts, just cold, off the top."
Rachel Maddow, MSNBC "The Rachel Maddow Show," May 24, 2018
For his extraordinary account of the long, strange trip of nuclear guardians, Burns takes this week’s Beat of the Week award.