WASHINGTON — The leaders of France, Germany and Britain personally lobbied President Bush over a controversial $35 billion contract for U.S. Air Force aerial refueling tankers that was originally awarded to a team that included a European aerospace firm but is now being re-competed.
The White House confirmed Wednesday that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had all raised the tanker issue with Bush.
But White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Bush made clear to all three that the decision was up to the Pentagon.
"All three leaders at various times raised the issue," Johndroe said. "The president told all three the same thing, he has nothing to do with the contracting process and the White House has nothing to do with the contracting process."
Johndroe said he wasn't sure at what meetings the issue was raised, but most recently Brown, Sarkozy and Merkel talked with Bush at the G-8 meetings last week in Japan. Those meetings came less than a month after congressional auditors found significant errors in the original tanker bidding and urged the Pentagon to reopen the competition.
The Air Force in February had awarded the contract to start replacing its 600 or so Eisenhower-era tankers to a team composed of Northrop Grumman and the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. rather than Boeing.
EADS is the parent company of Airbus, which has been locked in a fierce rivalry with Boeing for dominance in the commercial airplane market. EADS has long-sought to crack the U.S. defense market with a major contract.
The Northrop-EADS tanker would use an Airbus A330, which is assembled in Toulouse, France, using French, German, British and Spanish parts. Northrop-EADS has announced plans to eventually assemble the tanker at a new facility in Mobile, Ala.
European newspapers have reported for months that Brown, Sarkozy and Merkel have lobbied Bush, writing letters and raising the issue in direct talks. Initially the leaders lobbied for the contract and more recently, according to the latest reports, they have expressed concern that the Pentagon decision to reopen the tanker competition could jeopardize Airbus jobs in Europe.
"He will support the Airbus bid in anyway he can," an unidentified spokesman for Brown told The Times of London last week, adding that 11,000 jobs were at stake in Britain, where the wings for the A330 are built.
According to a report in the International Herald Tribune, Tom Enders, a top EADS executive, accompanied Merkel to one meeting with Bush at the White House.
Johndroe said he wasn't sure if the tanker contract came up during the Group of Eight summit in Japan earlier this month and believed it was more likely raised in meetings late last year and early this year.
"Given their home countries, they obviously talked about Airbus," Johndroe said.
Neither Bush nor any White House aides discussed the contract with Air Force or Pentagon officials, including the secretary of defense or the secretary of the Air Force, Johndroe said.
"Not at all," he said. "This has been purely a Defense Department issue. That is the case with contracts across the board."
Even so, Boeing supporters on Capitol Hill were critical of foreign leaders lobbying the president and suspicious about what role the White House may have played in initially awarding the contract to Northrop-EADS.
"The European Union has made no secret it wants to be the dominant player in aerospace," said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash. "There is no question they have been lobbying the White House hard on tankers."
"This is astonishing," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. "We are building tankers to meet the needs of the U.S. military. Now all of a sudden we are supposed to listen to the French, Germans and British about their needs. We should not be influenced by jobs in Germany or elsewhere."
Dicks said he had no evidence the White House or anyone else had sought to influence the award of the tanker contract to Northrop-EADS or that the president had extracted any promises from the Europeans to support U.S. foreign policy in exchange for Northrop-EADS winning the contract.
"It is interesting that these people have great access and they are important allies," Dicks said. "It makes you wonder. It's one of the few explanations that make any sense."
Outside analysts dismissed the possibility the Europeans had offered any "quid pro quo" in exchange for the tanker contract.
"I would be surprised if Bush extracted anything," said Sally McNamara, a senior policy analyst in European affairs at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.