Tanker Inquiry Finds Rumsfeld's Attention Was Elsewhere

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The topic was the largest defense procurement scandal in recent decades, and the two investigators for the Pentagon's inspector general in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's office on April 1, 2005, asked the secretary to raise his hand and swear to tell the truth.

Rumsfeld agreed but complained. "I find it strange," he said to the investigators, on the grounds that as a government official "the laws apply to me" anyway.

It was a bumpy start to an odd interview, as Rumsfeld cited poor memory, loose office procedures, and a general distraction with "the wars" in Iraq and Afghanistan to explain why he was unsure how his department came to nearly squander $30 billion leasing several hundred new tanker aircraft that its own experts had decided were not needed.

Then-Inspector General Joseph E. Schmitz, who resigned last year to take a job with a defense contractor, told senators at a June 2005 hearing that the transcript of Rumsfeld's interview was deleted from his 256-page report on the tanker lease scandal because Rumsfeld had not said anything relevant.

But a copy of the transcript, obtained recently by The Washington Post under the Freedom of Information Act after a year-long wait, says a lot about how little of Rumsfeld's attention has been focused on weapons-buying -- a function that consumes nearly a fifth of the $410 billion defense budget, exclusive of expenditures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The issue is relevant because a series of reports, including others by the inspector general and by the Government Accountability Office, indicate that five years into the Bush administration, the department's system of buying new weapons is broken and dysfunctional.

"DOD is simply not positioned to deliver high-quality products in a timely and cost-effective fashion," the comptroller general of the United States, David M. Walker, said in a little-noticed April 5 critique. The Pentagon, he said, has "a long-standing track record of over-promising and un-delivering with virtual impunity."

Walker based his blistering assessment on a detailed study of 52 different weapons costing a total of $850 billion, including five new multibillion-dollar weapons systems with cost overruns amounting to nearly 30 percent. "The all too-frequent result is that large and expensive programs are continually rebaselined, cut back or even scrapped after years of failing to achieve promised capability," he said. "A lot of it is because in the past, where there have been unacceptable outcomes, there hasn't been any accountability."

Some of the blame, Walker suggested, should be laid at Rumsfeld's office, which "does not seem to be pushing" for the dramatic overhaul of the Pentagon's system needs.

The tanker procurement scandal is the poster child for these problems. The Air Force in 2004 canceled its plan to lease the tankers from the Boeing Co., amid allegations of improper collusion with the company. Former Air Force procurement officer Darleen A. Druyun and one of the interlocutors at Boeing were sent to prison; subsequent investigations showed that Druyun manipulated other large Air Force contracts to benefit military contractors.

After a Senate investigation unearthed evidence that the tanker purchase was viewed inside the Pentagon as a politically tinged bailout for Boeing, Air Force Secretary James G. Roche and his top acquisitions deputy resigned from government. Boeing's chief executive was replaced, and last month the firm agreed to pay $615 million to settle all liability for the tanker scandal and an unrelated impropriety. It was the largest penalty paid by a defense contractor.

But the scandal never tarnished Rumsfeld, and in the previously undisclosed interview, conducted with principal Deputy General Counsel Daniel J. Dell'Orto at his side, the defense secretary makes clear that he does wars, not defense procurement. As a result, he could not recollect details of what subordinates told him about the tanker lease or what he said to them.

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