Flashcards are a time tested method of memorization for students the world over. According to a report from Bellingcat, U.S. soldiers working in America’s secret nuclear bases in Europe also used them to memorize nuclear security secrets. The Pentagon scrubbed some of those secret laden flashcards from the web, but it didn’t get them all. Many are still archived on the Wayback Machine.
That the U.S. has nuclear weapons in Europe is an open secret. Leaked documents have detailed the exact locations of many of these bases but details about their operations have remained a closely guarded secret. The flashcards spilled many of those secrets. In one set of flashcards, an individual detailed the exact locations of modems that connect to vaults, the procedures for duress signals on base, and the locations of cameras and where they pointed. “Details around the composition of passwords, usernames and whether they can include spaces were also detailed in the cards,” according to Bellingcat.
Bellingcat discovered the flashcards by doing a routine Google search for acronyms related to nuclear operations combined with the names of bases known to hold the nukes. “Simply searching for ‘PAS’, ‘WS3’ and ‘vault’ on Google together with the names of air bases in Europe quickly led to free flashcard platforms such as Chegg, Quizlet, and Cram,” Bellingcat said.
Bellingcat informed the Pentagon about the presence of the flashcards and they’ve since been taken down. However, archives of those pages are still available on the internet via the Internet Archive and the Wayback Machine. As of this writing, at least two of the 50 flashcard sets full of nuclear secrets were still available for anyone to look at.
Motherboard reached out to U.S. European Command, the Pentagon, and the Air Force for comment.
“The Department of the Air Force is investigating the suitability of information shared via study flashcards,” an Airforce Spokesperson told Motherboard. The others did not immediately respond.
According to Alex Wellerstein, a professor of History of Science at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and author of the book Restricted Data: The History of Nuclear Secrecy in the USA, “This is bonkers.”
“Every college professor in the country would tell you that [websites] like Chegg are ultimately degrading the educational experience,” Wellerstein told Motherboard in a Twitter DM. “But never in a million years would I think that they would be used by lazy servicemen to degrade nuclear security.”
According to Wellerstein, sites like Chegg are notorious on college campuses as a tool for cheaters. Students upload tests as flashcard sets they can easily share with fellow students. “The classic ‘don't cheat’ speech from professors usually includes something like, ‘would you want a cheater to be flying your plane, or doing your brain surgery?’” He said. “But now we get to add, ‘would you like a cheater to be handling your nuclear weapons security?’”
Air Force nuclear personnel have a life or death job that’s incredibly boring and filled with mindless tedium. They’re routinely tested to make sure they’re keeping up with the myriad technical details they need to stay on top of the job. Sometimes they cheat to pass the test. In 2014, the Air Force fired nine officers following an investigation into a widespread cheating scandal among its nuclear staff. Four years later, investigators discovered Air Force nuclear personnel dropping LSD on the job.
Cheating, uploading nuclear secrets to the internet, and dropping acid on the job aren’t comforting to the communities who live near the bases.
“These nuclear weapons continue to risk the populations in Europe and there is no preparedness to deal with the consequences of any use, either in war or by accident, yet the public is still kept in the dark about these weapons of mass destruction,” Beatrice Fihn, the executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, told Motherboard in an email.
“According to polls, there is strong public support in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy for...removing these nuclear weapons,” Fihn said.