E-Mails Detail Air Force Push for Boeing Deal

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 7, 2005

For the past three years, the Air Force has described its $30 billion proposal to convert passenger planes into military refueling tankers and lease them from Boeing Co. as an efficient way to obtain aircraft the military urgently needs.

But a very different account of the deal is shown in an August 2002 internal e-mail exchange among four senior Pentagon officials.

"We all know that this is a bailout for Boeing," Ronald G. Garant, an official of the Pentagon comptroller's office, said in a message to two others in his office and then-Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Wayne A. Schroeder. "Why don't we just bite the bullet," he asked, and handle the acquisition like the procurement of a 1970s-era aircraft -- by squeezing the manufacturer to provide a better tanker at a decent cost?

"We didn't need those aircraft either, but we didn't screw the taxpayer in the process," Garant added, referring to widespread sentiment at the Pentagon that the proposed lease of Boeing 767s would cost too much for a plane with serious shortcomings.

Garant's candid advice, which top Air Force officials did not follow, is disclosed for the first time in a new 256-page report by the Pentagon's inspector general. It provides an extraordinary glimpse of how the Air Force worked hand-in-glove with one of its chief contractors -- the financially ailing Boeing -- to help it try to obtain the most costly government lease ever.

The inspector general's report, slated for release today at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, adds a new dimension to what Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), John W. Warner (R-Va.) and Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) have already called one of the most significant military contracting abuses in several decades. Already, the scandal has resulted in prison terms for former Air Force principal deputy assistant secretary Darlene A. Druyun, and a senior Boeing official, Michael M. Sears.

Besides documenting precisely who was responsible, the new report details the Air Force's vigorous efforts on Boeing's behalf. It also shows how Air Force leaders and Boeing officials jointly manipulated legislation to authorize the deal and later sought to suppress dissenting opinion throughout the Pentagon.

After interviewing 88 people and reading hundreds of thousands of pages of e-mails, the inspector general's office concluded that four top Air Force officials and one of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's former top aides, Undersecretary of Defense Edward C. "Pete" Aldridge, violated Pentagon and government-wide procurement rules, failed to use "best business practices," ignored a legal requirement for weapons testing and failed to ensure that the tankers would meet the military's requirements.

The report also connects Rumsfeld to policymaking on the lease, recounting a statement by former Air Force secretary James G. Roche that Rumsfeld had called him in Newport, R.I., in July 2003 to say "he did not want me to budge on the tanker lease proposal," despite criticism.

Earlier, after Roche made what he acknowledged was a "special pleading" for the lease at a key meeting with Rumsfeld on Jan. 31, 2003, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence T. Di Rita jokingly said "that my comments 'were brought to you by the Boeing Company,' " Roche later told Air Force Chief of Staff John P. Jumper in an e-mail. "I didn't rip his heart out," Roche added.

Air Force spokesman Douglas Karas said he could not comment on the report in detail until it has been officially released. He said, however, that "we've learned from this experience" and will apply the lessons to future procurement of large weapons systems. Di Rita and Rumsfeld were in Thailand yesterday. A Boeing spokesman said the company could not comment on a report it has not read.

The Pentagon and Congress ultimately killed the lease deal. Pentagon officials have noted that the department is now conducting special oversight of Air Force weapons-buying, in part because of the problems with the Boeing deal.

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