Terrorism Funds May Let Brass Fly in Style

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By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 2008

The Air Force's top leadership sought for three years to spend counterterrorism funds on "comfort capsules" to be installed on military planes that ferry senior officers and civilian leaders around the world, with at least four top generals involved in design details such as the color of the capsules' carpet and leather chairs, according to internal e-mails and budget documents.

Production of the first capsule -- consisting of two sealed rooms that can fit into the fuselage of a large military aircraft -- has already begun.

Air Force officials say the government needs the new capsules to ensure that leaders can talk, work and rest comfortably in the air. But the top brass's preoccupation with creating new luxury in wartime has alienated lower-ranking Air Force officers familiar with the effort, as well as congressional staff members and a nonprofit group that calls the program a waste of money.

Air Force documents spell out how each of the capsules is to be "aesthetically pleasing and furnished to reflect the rank of the senior leaders using the capsule," with beds, a couch, a table, a 37-inch flat-screen monitor with stereo speakers, and a full-length mirror.

The effort has been slowed, however, by congressional resistance to using counterterrorism funds for the project and by lengthy internal deliberations about a series of demands for modifications by Air Force generals. One request was that the color of the leather for the seats and seat belts in the mobile pallets be changed from brown to Air Force blue and that seat pockets be added; another was that the color of the table's wood be darkened.

Changing the seat color and pockets alone was estimated in a March 12 internal document to cost at least $68,240.

In all, for the past three years the service has asked to divert $16.2 million to the effort from what the military calls the GWOT, or global war on terrorism. Congress has twice told the service that it cannot, including an August 2007 letter from Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) to the Pentagon ordering that the money be spent on a "higher priority" need.

Officials say the Air Force nonetheless decided last year to take $331,000 from counterterrorism funds to cover a cost overrun, partly stemming from the design changes, although a senior officer said yesterday in response to inquiries that it will reverse that decision.

The internal Air Force e-mails, provided to The Washington Post by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a nonprofit Washington group, and independently authenticated, make it clear that lower-ranking officers involved in the project have been pressured to create what one described as "world class" accommodations exceeding the standards of a regular business-class flight.

"I was asked by Gen. [Robert H.] McMahon what it would take to make the [capsule] . . . a 'world class' piece of equipment," an officer at the service's Air Mobility Command said in a March 2007 e-mail to a colleague, referring to the mobility command's top officer then. "He said he wanted an assurance . . . that we would be getting a world class item this week."

Air Force officials say the program dates from a 2006 decision by Air Force Gen. Duncan J. McNabb that existing seats on transport planes, including some that match those on commercial airliners, may be fine for airmen and troops but inadequate for the top brass. McNabb was then the Air Mobility commander; he is now the Air Force's vice chief of staff, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates nominated him in June to become head of the military's Transportation Command.

In a letter of complaint sent yesterday to Gates, POGO asserted that the new capsules will provide no special communications or work capabilities beyond those already available for top officials on Air Force transport aircraft. It is "a gross misuse of millions of taxpayer dollars that could otherwise be used to train and equip soldiers," wrote Danielle Brian, the group's executive director.


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