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The Air Force withheld crucial information from the Deseret News about an MX missile damaged in its silo last June at F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo. Officers were more concerned with covering up than with telling the public what happened.

The Washington Post obtained a private letter from Rep. Les Aspin, D-Wis., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Larry D. Welch. This led to the Post's breaking a major scandal this week, uncovering details of the incident.According to the Post, an MX became detached from a mooring in its silo, dropping between six inches and a foot. This seriously damaged it. The missile was disassembled and shipped back to its original assembly depot or construction areas.

Some or all of the stages went back to Utah.

According to the Post, the Air Force concluded the problem resulted from improper production of a group of five missiles. This forced the Air Force to order the nuclear warheads removed from the remaining four.

Aspin was angry that while the warheads were ordered removed, the Air Force claimed the whole fleet of 50 MX Missiles was fully operational.

Starting about six months ago, I've pursued the story, interviewing local residents, talking to officers at F.E. Warren AFB. Then on Sept. 6, 1987, I filed a request for facts, citing the Freedom of Information Act.

I sent it to Vincent P. Murone, chief of the reports branch at the Directorate of Aerospace Safety, Norton AFB, California. His name was given to me by an officer at the Air Force's Inspection and Safety Center.

My request was denied on Oct. 7, 1987. Col. E.M. Hartung-Schuster, chief of staff at Norton, wrote, " . . . the records requested are exempt from disclosure because they are properly and currently classified in the interest of national defense."

He said the decision could be appealed by writing to a particular address at the Pentagon in Washington. I filed an appeal on Dec. 5, mailing it to the address indicated.

"In our opinion, the safety of missiles is of grave concern to the public for many reasons. Among these are the possibility this incident may show a lack of preparedness by our defense forces," I wrote.

Also, I noted that "military personnel or civilian contract employees may be in danger at the base," construction workers might be in jeopardy, missiles transported on highways or by rail might explode or leak toxic material, a missile might accidentally launch, a saboteur may have infiltrated the base, and "a contractor may have done his work so poorly in installing a missile as to raise questions about the readiness of our forces."

My letter continued, "The rumor in Cheyenne, Wyo., was that the third stage of the MX had collapsed and was leaning against the side of the canister within the silo.

"We want to know whether any of this is true . . . Fearful stories circulated, they were published, and we have a responsibility to see it is confirmed or denied.

"Another report we have heard is that the missile may have been damaged when it was lowered into the silo . . . The fact that the missile was disassembled and the parts were shipped back to their depots or assembly points might indicate a structural or design defect."

I asked for information, saying any material in the reports that could harm our defense posture could be deleted.

The Air Force's Freedom of Information Act manager, Barbara A. Carmichael, wrote to me that Hartung-Schuster had given me their address in error. Actually, I should have written in care of Norton AFB, not to her in Washington, she said. My letter was being forwarded to Norton in California.

The top of her note has my correct name and address. But on the same page she greets me with, "Dear Mr. Whipple." Then on Jan. 11, Murone - remember him? - replied. My appeal had come full circle, mailed by the Air Force back to the man at Norton to whom I had addressed my original request.

"Your appeal has been forwarded to the Litigation Division, Office of the Judge Advocate General, for evaluation. Future correspondence concerning the appeal should be addressed to: HQ USAF/JACL, 1900 Half Street, SW, Washington, DC 20324-1000."

So my letter was off on its merry rounds again, this time back to Washington!

I was zapped by "national defense," that trusty old weapon. Faster than a B1-B, sneakier than a Stealth Bomber, more reliable than an MX Missile.

When somebody goofs, just stamp "CLASSIFIED" on the reports.

Well, the tactic may save officers and their pals from embarrassment. But it undermines the purpose of the Freedom of Information Act, which is supposed to give Americans important news about our government.