The John Wayne Saloon has reportedly been shut down after a newspaper raised questions about alcohol use at NORAD NORAD commander General Glen VanHerck arrives for a US Senate briefing last February in Washington. © Getty Images / Drew Angerer

The US general overseeing Washington’s defenses against nuclear bombers and other threats by air has reportedly ordered the shutdown of a secret saloon after a major media outlet raised questions about daytime drinking inside the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

US Air Force General Glen VanHerck closed the bar last week and demanded an investigation into how NORAD officers were allowed to operate a clandestine drinking joint during work hours, USA Today reported on Wednesday. Known as the John Wayne Saloon – named after an iconic American actor known for tough-guy roles – the tavern was located at Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado and served its patrons by invitation only, the newspaper said.

A John Wayne poster was affixed to the tavern’s door, and visitors had to enter a keypad code to gain access. “Nearby, lieutenant colonels and majors planned future NORAD operations,” USA Today said, citing unidentified officers and civilian employees familiar with the saloon. “Also at hand: computers with access to the Pentagon’s secret email system.”

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VanHerck told the newspaper that he had confirmed the presence of hard liquor, beer and a refrigerator in a locked office space with a John Wayne poster inside the NORAD headquarters. He also confirmed that the facility had access to “classified networks for planning purposes.”

The NORAD commander added that the presence of alcohol was “certainly something that was concerning enough to me to direct a commander’s-directed investigation.” The probe will determine whether alcohol use inside the NORAD headquarters compromised America’s national security, VanHerck said.

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) studies have shown that military service is America’s heaviest-drinking occupation. Troops consume alcohol on 130 days out of the year, on average, and they binge-drink 41 times annually, according to an analysis of CDC data released in 2019.

Alcohol use is prohibited in US military offices without special permission. Waivers are sometimes granted for such events as retirement celebrations and holiday parties.

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NORAD is responsible for overseeing the airspace defenses of both the US and Canada. The US Northern Command (NORTHCOM), which coordinates the Pentagon’s response to attacks and natural disasters in North America, is also headquartered at Peterson Space Force Base.

VanHerck said he hadn’t heard about any concerns regarding on-the-job drinking at NORAD prior to USA Today’s inquiry. He claimed credit for being “transparent” when the newspaper brought the secret tavern to his attention. “I would tell the people in the United States and Canada: trust the commands that defend them each and every day,” the general said.

Earlier this year, VanHerck fired his NORTHCOM operations chief, US Army Major General Joseph Lestorti, citing “a loss of trust and confidence.” Several officials told USA Today that the ousted general was known for being gruff, demanding and intolerant of workplace alcohol use.