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Air Force strips 17 officers of control of nuclear missiles after inspection earns a D

National Park Service via AP file

A deactivated nuclear launch facility near Wall, S.D., similar to classified facilities at Minot (N.D.) Air Force Base. All 17 of the AirForce officers disciplined last month are assigned to Minot.

A "breakdown in overall discipline" led the Air Force to suspend 17 officers and disqualify them from controlling nuclear missiles after a poor inspection at one of the service's most important nuclear bases, military officials told NBC News on Wednesday.

All 17 officers are assigned to 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, headquarters of the 5th Bomb Wing, which maintains 150 nuclear-tipped Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The unit received a "D" rating during inspections in March, leading senior officials at the base to call for an immediate crackdown, NBC station KMOT of Minot reported.

The inspection was only the latest in a series of high-profile failings, which led the group's deputy commander, Lt. Col. Jay Folds, to send an internal email complaining that the unit is suffering "rot" within its ranks, according to a copy obtained by The Associated Press.

"We are, in fact, in a crisis right now," Folds wrote, according to the AP.

The 17 officers — representing almost 5 percent of the 91st Missile Wing's missile launch staff — were suspended for 60 days last month and were stripped of their authority to control and launch nuclear missiles after the "D," or "marginal," inspection in March, an inspection the Air Force publicly labeled a success.

Air Force and other Defense Department officials confirmed the basic details of the AP report, telling NBC News that a "breakdown in overall discipline" led to a series of relatively minor violations of rules and procedures.

The base's nuclear weapons and facilities were never in jeopardy, they said. But the combined potential impact of the violations raised serious concern within the base's leadership, they confirmed.

The base has come under scrutiny for other incidents in recent years that raised questions about its security and oversight.

In August 2007, six cruise missiles loaded with W80-1 nuclear warheads were flown from Minot to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana before authorities discovered that the warheads hadn't been removed for safety, as required.

In a review of the incident in February 2008 (.pdf), the Defense Advisory Board blamed "process and systemic problems" that had "developed over more than a decade and have the potential for much more serious consequences."

But just five months after the blistering report was issued, in July 2008, three Air Force officers fell asleep at the controls of a component that contained old launch codes for nuclear ICBMs. They were immediately barred from working with classified and nuclear materials and were later discharged from the service.

The new report comes as the base is breaking in a new commander, Col. Alexis Mezynski, who took over in January and must now work to put out the fire.

In an interview with KMOT as he assumed command in January, Mezynski acknowledged that there were problems at the base, which was built in the 1950s and needs to be brought back up "to conditions that are workable."

"There are going to be changes," he promised at the time.

Jim Miklaszewski and Courtney Kube of NBC News contributed to this report. Follow M. Alex Johnson on Twitter and Facebook.

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