ON THE OPPOSITE PAGE today, we print excerpts from Secretary of the Navy John Lehman's recent National Press Club speech. This is the speech in which Mr. Lehman made his unusual and admirable assault on a defense contractor (Electric Boat) which had recently made a multimillion-dollar claim for compensation from the government for costs that Mr. Lehman insists were the result of its own "faulty performance." Speaking for the Navy, the U.S. government and taxpaying stiffs everywhere, Mr. Lehman then said that if Electric Boat did not reconsider and withdraw this claim, the Navy would bring countersuit of its own against Electric Boat to recover damages it had incurred as a result of the delay in the project in question and would also take its future business elsewhere.

Naturally there is a great deal of complaint about this on the part of the contractor and insistence that the facts of the case support a different interpretation of who did what to whom and who is at fault. That dispute will have to be adjudicated. What is notable, however, and will remain so no matter how the thing is finally settled, is the tone of shock and outrage with which the contractor responded to Mr. Lehman's attack. For Mr. Lehman was challenging the cozy system, the whole structure of assumptions that has been fashioned over the years, under which defense contractors can be and are forgiven just about anything ... and good old Uncle pays and pays and pays. When such a defense project goes really wrong and gets to be an embarrassment, the attempt to do something about it invariably bogs down in cries that retribution against the contractor will only hurt the poor workers in the industry or factories involved--then everyone subsides. Interestingly, the workers issue has already been raised on behalf of Electric Boat.

It is worth observing that if the poverty programs had been run the way some of the defense procurement programs have been, they wouldn't even have lasted as long as they did. There has always been a political double standard in these affairs. Too many defense contractors have felt (with some reason) that they could do as they did with impunity, that the cost overrun and the ages-long delay and the inefficient end product were all in the so-what-are-you-going-to- do-about-it? category, that the services and the public had no recourse. Well . . . surprise! We hope Mr. Lehman doesn't back down. He can claim one of the few truly impressive technological breakthroughs in recent Pentagon contracting history.