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Report raises questions on air tanker contract

WASHINGTON—A Pentagon report released Tuesday to answer questions about an air tanker deal gone bad instead generated more questions about what roles Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the White House played in pushing the flawed contract.

The "accountability review" of the failed push for a $23 billion plan for the Air Force to lease 100 Boeing 767s as air refueling tankers, first reported last week by Knight Ridder, faults several top Pentagon officials for not following federal procurement rules and disregarding taxpayers' interests.

But major sections of the report were blacked out, leading Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., to complain that it focused too narrowly on Air Force officials and made it impossible to determine the roles of other important players, including White House and senior Defense Department officials.

"The omission of this information makes the report so incomplete as to be misleading," Levin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said at a hearing to review the report.

The tanker plan, hatched shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, collapsed after Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and others demanded more information, which exposed ethics lapses and fiscal recklessness.

Air Force tanker negotiator Darleen Druyun, who later took a job with Boeing, is now in prison for negotiating for her Boeing job with former Boeing chief financial officer Mike Sears while she was still working on the tanker program. Sears also was convicted and sent to prison.

Druyun, former top Pentagon weapons buyer Edward "Pete" Aldridge, former Air Force Secretary James Roche and his weapons chief, Marvin Sambur, were largely to blame for Air Force misconduct in the tanker deal, according to the report.

Druyun "did not operate in a vacuum," said committee chairman Sen. John Warner, R-Va.

"At a minimum it appears that the acquisition chain of the Air Force, and perhaps the (Pentagon), was seriously inadequate."

Tanker misconduct may have reached the defense secretary and the White House, Levin said.

In one e-mail cited in the report, Roche wrote that Rumsfeld encouraged him not to budge on the tanker proposal, despite criticism. E-mails previously released by the Senate mention President Bush's chief of staff, Andrew Card, discussing the deal before the Pentagon approved it.

At the hearing, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., pressed Pentagon Deputy Inspector General Thomas Gimble on whether Rumsfeld and former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz may have been involved in drafting the deal. Gimble said they didn't appear to be deeply involved in how the program was negotiated.

"Based on what they knew, it was a proper decision" to proceed with the lease, he said.

Levin accused Defense Department inspector Joseph Schmitz of being influenced by the White House in blacking out major sections of the report.

"These omissions ... appear to have been undertaken in consultation with staff in the Office of White House Counsel," compromising the report's credibility, he said.

Levin cited a report footnote that said verbatim quotes from some e-mails were not included because of White House objections.

Schmitz said his office made final decisions on what was left out. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said names were blacked out because the report's jurisdiction was limited to the Pentagon.

"The inspector general had access to the information" necessary to complete the report, he said.

Schmitz didn't compel Aldridge, who now sits on Lockheed Martin's board of directors, to testify. Schmitz's office can subpoena witnesses, but never subpoenaed Aldridge, whose staff couldn't reach him, Schmitz said.

Warner said the committee would ask Aldridge to appear before it, and would consider a subpoena if he didn't comply.

Along with a detailed description of wrongdoing, the inspector general's report includes recommendations about how to avoid future defense contracting fiascos. It calls for thorough analysis of alternative plans before any major defense contract is approved, which didn't happen with the tankers.

Replacement of the Air Force's aging fleet of KC-135 tankers awaits another round of reports. A Pentagon analysis of tanker options is due in August. Boeing continues to push the 767. Spokesman Dan Beck said the company had no comment on the inspector general's report.

Boeing rival Airbus, which Schmitz found was unfairly treated in the tanker deal, is expected to be a much stronger contender this time around, despite continued resistance on Capitol Hill.

European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company, an Airbus parent, has announced that it will build a U.S. plant should it get a tanker contract, softening some lawmakers' attitudes.

"I think it would be healthy for America and healthy for our industrial base to have more competition, even international," Nelson said.

At the hearing, Acting Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England and Acting Pentagon acquisitions chief Michael Wynne said some procurement reforms have been made. Wynne was criticized in the report for not undoing the work of his predecessor, Aldridge. Wynne said he continued to follow the tanker plan because Aldridge told him that Rumsfeld supported the deal.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper and Acting Air Force Secretary Michael Dominguez apologized to the committee for unprofessional conduct in Air Force e-mails.

"I am deeply sorry for that violation of the standards of conduct and professionalism that we owe to this committee," Dominguez said to Warner. "It won't happen again, sir."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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