The Navy’s Nuclear Cheating Scandal Is Worse Than You Think
Exam-rigging went on for seven years
On Aug. 20, the Navy dismissed 34 sailors for cheating on an important nuclear-power test. The sailors were all enlisted staff instructors at the Nuclear Power School in Goose Creek, South Carolina. The instructors had been passing out the answers to the tests they were administering.
This is yet another in a long line of ethical disasters in the military recently. Back in March, the Air Force dismissed nine commanders amid another cheating scandal. In late December, the Pentagon fired an Air Force major general for getting shit-faced in Moscow while on official business.
Also at the end of last year, the Navy investigated senior officers for accepting bribes from a Malaysian contractor.
At first glance, the instructors’ dismissal seems like progress for the Defense Department. The Navy discovered a problem, investigated it and disciplined the perpetrators.
But a closer look at the sailing branch’s report about the scandal reveals some worrying details … and evidence that maybe the Navy hasn’t righted the ship.
The cheating in South Carolina went on for seven long years. Sailors lied to investigators’ faces. Commanders either were complicit or—equally worrying—totally ignorant of their subordinates’ systematic violations. And there still are too many unanswered questions.
Sailors at the Nuclear Power School take several tests as part of the Engineering Watch Supervisor exam. The tests help qualify them to operate the nuclear reactors that power aircraft carriers and submarines. The staff instructors use several different versions of the test and assign them randomly to students.
Some of the sailors training aboard the former USS Daniel Webster—a non-deploying instructional submarine—knew which version of test they were going to take, as well as all of the answers. They knew because their instructors had told them.
Sailors on the training ship passed the answers to each other via email and thumb drives. The investigation reveals that sailors knew who had the files. All they had to do was ask. Sometimes, they didn’t have to ask at all. More than one sailor received unsolicited copies of the test via email.
The instructors passed out the tests to anyone who asked. They “had likely already cheated before they assumed their position [as instructors],” the Navy concluded.
The instructors got to their positions because they themselves had cheated on the tests. Then they passed on their knowledge to their students. This went out for seven years. The cheaters institutionalized their deceit.
Here’s a galling detail. The instructors received mandatory integrity training before administering the exams. They signed a piece of paper attesting to their honesty. As part of the exam process, the instructors had to remind sailors of the consequences of cheating before every test.
Mere paper. Empty words.
Yes, these exams are hard. The workload is heavy at the nuclear school. Everyone else was cheating, making it easier and easier for successive generations of trainees to accept that maybe it was okay getting the exam answers from the instructors.
The sailor who blew the whistle on the cheating did so only because they saw a news report about the Air Force’s recent nuclear cheating scandal. That emboldened them. Even then, the whistleblower was scared of possible retaliation.
When the Navy asked other sailors why they did nothing, they said they feared “the repercussions and consequences to them or their shipmates.” On top of all that, the Navy caught 27 people lying to the investigators about cheating.
The investigators don’t know how it all started. Not all the electronic forensic evidence is in. NCIS is still going through personal computers and emails.
But there’s another problem. The investigators traced the source of the cheating scandal back to four individuals who served from 2004 to 2006. Three of the former sailors deny the allegations and the other has lawyered up.
The investigators’ best guess is that someone in that group got hold of the tests back in 2006. The report details several hardware changes to computer systems around that time. It’s possible one of these former sailors gathered up discs or hard drives meant for the trash.
That’s speculation. There’s a decent chance that no one will ever know how the sailors began gaming the system.
But how did seven years of institutionalized cheating escape commanders’ attention?
“The investigation found that [Navy leadership] enforced applicable examination security protocols and found no evidence of willful fault or neglect on their part,” according to the sailing branch’s report.
“The current [commanding officer] had little or no direct involvement in the … examination despite his responsibility as approving official.”
The report goes on to describe a “lack of rigor” in the commanding officer’s working relationship with the test officer.
You can’t have it both ways. You don’t get to say that command wasn’t at fault and then immediately turn around and say they probably should have done a better job.
This comes as no surprise. The Pentagon notoriously protect high-ranking officers from the consequences of their subordinates’ failures—or their own screw-ups.
Maj. Gen. Michael Carey embarrassed himself and the whole country by getting fall-down drunk during a diplomatic mission to Moscow last year. The Air Force stripped him of his nuclear command, but he’ll still retire and draw a hefty pension.
So will the officers in charge of the instructors caught cheating in this latest scandal.
At top—Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, left, accompanied by Adm. John Richardson, director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program. AP photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta