WASHINGTON—Almost everyone was on board and the deal, a little bit of corporate welfare that would only cost the American taxpayers around $23.5 billion plus an additional $5 billion for routine maintenance, was a slam dunk.
Who could stand against the lobbying heft and suasion of the Boeing Co., the Air Force, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and at least one of his right-hand men, key members of the House and Senate and powerful people in the White House?
Anyone inside the Pentagon who spoke against the plan to lease 100 Boeing 767 aircraft fitted out as aerial refueling tankers at a price per plane that was higher than actually buying them would be crushed. Anyone outside the Pentagon who spoke would be crushed by fast counter-attack or stonewalled.
And so it would have gone had it not been for one man who thought the tanker deal stank like rotten fish and was willing to go to war with power brokers inside his own Republican Party.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona wanted answers from Boeing and the Air Force, and when confronted with that Pentagon stone wall he unleashed the only arrow in his quiver: He put a hold on every civilian nominee for a position in the Department of Defense as well as critical uniformed appointments within the Air Force hierarchy, some of them for more than 18 months.
Boeing was the first to cave, turning over thousands of pages of internal and external e-mails that exposed how rotten the tanker deal really was. When Boeing's plane could not meet the list of operational requirements for an Air Force tanker, the document was rewritten so that ONLY Boeing's aircraft could meet the now lowered operational standards.
The e-mails were from powerful men, and one powerful woman, in Boeing, the Air Force, the Pentagon and the White House.
The Air Force's chief negotiator, Darleen Druyun, dubbed the Dragon Lady by those who had to deal with her, was only critical of Boeing for failing to demand higher prices—and she saw to it that the company got more than it had sought.
Druyun was simultaneously negotiating her own post-retirement job with Boeing and got one worth a quarter-million a year when she walked out of the Pentagon.
The Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisitions, Edward C. ``Pete'' Aldridge, made his own contribution to the cause just before he walked out of the Pentagon revolving door and into a post on the board of defense industry giant Lockheed Martin: Aldridge signed the document approving the lease deal and then ordered the Air Force acquisitions chief, Marvin Sambur, to exempt this contract from normal Pentagon safeguards and oversight.
Over on the Hill, McCain wrote letter after letter demanding information from the Air Force and Defense Department. He demanded investigations of the darkest corners of a deal that was a barely disguised hijacking of the U.S. Treasury. And he demanded that the Air Force turn over its internal e-mail traffic.
Others on the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, including the chairman, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., and minority leader Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., began signing some of those letters with McCain.
When the auditors of the Defense Department inspector general's office turned in their report last year assessing the Boeing tanker deal as a bad one, Warner leaned forward and asked the chief auditor: "How long have you been doing this job?"
The auditor: "Thirty-three years, sir."
Warner: "Have you ever seen a deal as dirty as this one in that time?"
The auditor: "No sir, I have not."
Darleen Druyun pleaded guilty to her part in the scandal and was sentenced to nine months in federal prison last October. The Boeing official who hired Druyun, treasurer Michael Sears, likewise pleaded guilty to federal charges. The Boeing CEO at the time resigned.
This week the inspector general went before Senate Armed Services to brief senators about his latest investigation of the deal—a hard look at whose fingerprints were on the key decisions inside the Air Force and inside the Pentagon.
The report says that Air Force Secretary James Roche, who left the Pentagon late last year, told the investigators that Rumsfeld personally urged him in July 2003 to stand firm on the deal: "He did not want me to budge on the tanker lease proposal."
Not since the days of the $400 toilet seat and the $800 hammer have we seen so blatant an attempted rip-off of taxpayer money, and the Boeing deal is only the tip of the iceberg. Druyun told prosecutors, as she cut her deal for leniency, that she herself had cooked the books on nine other big Pentagon contracts.
At least a few military-industrial complex pirates have learned not to mess with John McCain. He has a bulldog bite and he won't let go until they scream "uncle" or perhaps "guilty."
ABOUT THE WRITER
Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young