Nightly News   |  January 16, 2014

Air Force Rocked by Cheating Scandal

Nuclear launch officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana have been pulled off the mission and their security clearances suspended.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> and we first told you about the scandals piling up for the nuclear missiles launch officers, the men and women in uniform entrusted to maintain the missile defenses, allegations of cheating on exams and drugs within the ranks are just a string of allegations that dated back for years. tonight, our pentagon correspondent, jim miklaszewski , takes us underground for a closer look at this high-stakes assignment.

>> reporter: ten stories underground locked behind massive doors that could withstand a nuclear blast . these nuclear missile launch officers are at the tip of the sphere. working side by side over 24 hour shifts, they literally have their fingers on the nuclear triggers. but outside these bunkers, the core has been rocked by the largest cheating scandal in air force history. 34 nuclear launch officers at malmstrom air force base in montana have been pulled off the mission and their security clearances suspended accused of cheating on exams.

>> it is completely unacceptable. we'll get to the bottom of it and hold people appropriately accountable.

>> reporter: the officers are accused of cheating on the very exams aimed at testing their ability to do their jobs.

>> cheating or tolerating anybody who cheats runs counter to everything we believe in.

>> reporter: it gets worse, this cheating was uncovered during an investigation regarding drug abuse among the officers, just the latest in a series of major problems for the nuclear mission. in 2007 , they lost track of six nuclear missiles flown cross country in louisiana. six months later, the air force accidentally shipped nuclear triggers to taiwan. then secretary robert gates fired both the air force secretary and chief of staff.

>> my reaction was i thought i took care of that problem.

>> reporter: gates told nbc's andrea mitchell the end of the cold war lowered the standards for the nuclear mission.

>> without the sense of immediacy to the mission, it became lax. and we've seen all of these other problems.

>> reporter: despite the mission, it remains in safe hands at least with those still on the job. jim miklaszewski , nbc news, the pentagon.