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U.S. Air Force yanks nuclear clearances after cheating on exam found

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Air Force said on Wednesday it had pulled the security clearance of 34 officers and is re-testing the entire force overseeing America's nuclear-armed missiles after uncovering cheating on a key proficiency exam.

The incident was the largest single case of cheating in America's nuclear missile force in memory and took place at Malmstrom Air Force Base, one of three bases responsible for the United States' 420 nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Malmstrom is located in Montana.

General Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, said the incident involved cheating on a monthly missile launch officer proficiency exam last year. He was unaware of any other incidents, although an investigation is ongoing.

"There was cheating that took place with respect to this particular test. Some officers did it. Others apparently knew about it, and it appears that they did nothing, or at least not enough, to stop it or to report it," Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said at a news conference.

Welsh told the news conference that the answers had been shared by text message.

James added that she had full confidence in the security of America's nuclear missile force.

The cheating scandal is only the latest embarrassment for the U.S. nuclear missile force and the Air Force. Last week, the Air Force revealed that 10 Air Force officers at six bases were being investigated for alleged illegal drug possession, including three from the ICBM force.

Air Force Major General Michael Carey was fired as head of America's ICBM force in October for getting drunk and carousing with women while leading a government delegation to Moscow for talks on nuclear security.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Missy Ryan; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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