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.
Rumsfeld is a former business executive and White House official who published a set of "Rumsfeld's Rules" that include the injunction: "Be precise -- a lack of precision is dangerous." But when investigators asked him whether he had approved the Boeing tanker lease in May 2003 -- despite widespread violations of Pentagon and government-wide procurement rules along the way -- Rumsfeld said: "I don't remember approving it. But I certainly don't remember not approving it, if you will."
Asked whether his subordinates, including former undersecretary of defense Edward C. "Pete" Aldridge, had accurately invoked Rumsfeld's approval when they signed documents authorizing the Boeing tanker lease to go forward, Rumsfeld said, "I may very well have said yes. I just don't remember. . . . I am not going to sit here and quibble over it." He did say he remembered approving a gun for a tank in 1976, during his first time as defense secretary.
When pressed about the tanker lease -- the largest such lease in U.S. history -- Rumsfeld offered two explanations for his distance from it. The first was related to his focus on what he called "the global war on terror," including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and what he termed the "continuing difficulties" with the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
"My time basically in the department was focused on those things and certainly not on acquisitions or -- or what have you," Rumsfeld said. "Basically I spend an overwhelming portion of my time with the combatant commanders and functioning as the link between the president . . . and the combatant commanders conducting the wars."
Asked if he was aware of concerns about the proposed Air Force lease from Capitol Hill and the Pentagon's own analysts, Rumsfeld responded, "I don't know what I knew then, compared to what I know now. . . . I am not able to go back and say . . . what did I know at a certain moment back in that period."
He also indicated that his office procedures are loose. "I work in here, I am going to guess, 12 hours a day. . . . I also know that people come in and out of this office all the time. Send me memos, half of which I -- are appropriate for me to have, some of which aren't, which I don't read. And call or come in and say I am going to do this or what do you think about that."
Rumsfeld said that given "all of those hours and hours in meetings and questions," he couldn't "say of certain knowledge" whether he provided any guidance about the lease to subordinates. He assumed, he said, that they were following "the normal rules that would apply to what it is they do."
This perplexed one of the investigators, who asked how Rumsfeld knew the information he got about the tankers was reliable if established procurement procedures were not followed. "In terms of knowledge that -- that -- from that period, I am without it," Rumsfeld replied.
The investigators tried a different tack. Tell us, one said, about the extent and nature of conversations with the White House about the tanker lease. The question related to the fact that in 2002 President Bush asked then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. to help reach a deal between the Pentagon and Boeing, which had substantial clout on Capitol Hill and was a major contributor to Bush's inaugural celebration.
"I have been told," Rumsfeld said, "that discussions with the president are privileged, and with his immediate staff." Large portions of text on the next five pages of the 38-page interview transcript were blacked out in the copy provided to The Post.
Part of the controversy over the tanker deal involved the department's failure to conduct an "Analysis of Alternatives" -- a routine comparison of options mandated by Pentagon rules before any large-scale weapons acquisition. When one investigator started asking about this, Rumsfeld demurred. "You are way out of my league on all of this," he said.
Rumsfeld went on to express frustration that some lawmakers responded to the scandal by blocking the promotions or new appointments of those involved. "We have practically no one left on the civilian side of the Air Force. . . . And the . . . damage that was done by the way this was handled has been terrible." Fortunately, he added, the lease "did not go through" because of "people in the Senate and others, whistleblowers, or whoever did what they did."
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman responded about two weeks ago that Rumsfeld views his role as setting top-level policy and keeping abreast of acquisition issues, not becoming involved in "day-to-day programmatic decisions." He created a video message stressing the importance of ethics in weapons-buying, Whitman said.
But in the past six years, while Rumsfeld occasionally mentioned procurement problems in his public appearances, he delivered only one major speech about the need for reform in how the Pentagon buys weapons. He complained in the speech that "our financial systems are decades old" and noted estimates that "we cannot track $2.3 trillion in transactions." He also said that the acquisition process was being improved and that "we now budget based on realistic estimates."
Rumsfeld's speech was delivered on Sept. 10, 2001.