By Mark Sauter
SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
SEATTLE -- Dozens of sailors and Marines cleared for access to nuclear weapons turned out to be psychologically unstable during the past year, and the three worst cases involve suicide and murder.
Navy officials say they are reviewing the internal program that is supposed to prevent such individuals from getting into key positions.
In the latest case, a fire-control technician aboard a nuclear missile submarine, Shyam David Drizpaul, apparently murdered three persons, wounded another and then killed himself during a shooting spree last week in Washington state. Police have uncovered no motive for the crimes so far.
Drizpaul was a USS Michigan crewman whose duties involved operating machines that launch the submarine's Trident missiles. Navy documents describe his job as "critical . . . could cause the unauthorized launch, release or firing of a nuclear weapon."
The Navy's Nuclear Weapons Personnel Reliability Program, or PAP, had found Drizpaul psychologically stable. The PRP is a two-step program of extensive background checks and on-the-job monitoring.
Navy officials say that no single individual can launch or detonate a nuclear device because of safe
guards built into the system. But they are concerned that some of the most carefully screened sailors have turned out to be unstable.
According to documents obtained under the Freedom of information nation Act, 436 persons approved by the PRP lost their security clearances in 1988, the last year for which complete records are available.
The documents reveal 109 cases of drug abuse. Another 81 persons lost their clearances due to criminal convictions or "a pattern of behavior or actions that are reasonably indicative of a contemptuous attitude toward law or other duly constituted authority"
The figures for 1989 are expected to be similar, according to Charles V. Page, assistant to the chief of naval operations for personnel security policy.
More alarming than the numbers, however, are the details of the violence that has erupted at Washington state's Bangor Submarine Base over the past year.
On Jan. 14, 1989, 18-year-old Lance Cpl. Patrick Jelly fired an M-16 rifle into his head while guarding nuclear devices at the facility.
According to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request, the investigation of Cpl. Jelly's suicide revealed failures in the PRP's on-the-job monitoring system.
A fellow Marine told Navy investigators that "Jelly has acted a little crazy at times." Cpl. Jelly had allegedly discussed suicide and reincarnation, placed a string noose around his neck, improperly loaded his rifle while on guard, claimed to have murdered someone, and pierced his arms with needle and thread.
No report of this apparently reached PRP officials at the submarine base, and Cpl. Jelly continued to guard nuclear warheads.
Another weakness in the program was highlighted by the case of Tommy Metcalf, who like Drizpaul was a fire-control technician aboard a Trident missile submarine.
Before joining the Navy, Metcalf had been a prime suspect in the unsolved shotgun slaying of his girlfriend. But because he was never arrested or charged with a crime, Metcalf was able to pass background checks and gain a "critical" job aboard the nuclear submarine USS Alaska.
In July 1989, Metcalf allegedly used plastic bags to suffocate an elderly couple.
Navy officials argue that PRP failures are relatively fewóless than 2 percent of the 25,340 persons cleared in 1988 turned out to be psychologically unstable.
No serviceman cleared by the PRP has ever sabotaged, stolen or attempted the unauthorized firing of a nuclear device, Mr. Page said.
But the Navy admits being puzzled by the violent incidents at the Bangor Submarine Base. "I would have to say it's an aberration," Mr. Page said. "Rest assured the Navy is going to examine everything that happened . . . to see if there are lessons we can learn from it."