President Reagan, hoping to contain political damage to his defense buildup from weapons procurement scandals, is expected to name an independent commission next week to assess the Pentagon's acquisition practices, administration officials said yesterday.
A White House official said Reagan nearly completed plans for a bipartisan panel at a meeting Tuesday with Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and national security affairs adviser Robert C. McFarlane.
The Pentagon issued a statement yesterday saying that Weinberger "fully supports the concept of a presidential commission."
But senior Pentagon officials said Weinberger privately opposes the plan, feeling it is criticism of his stewardship. He indicated his opposition by encouraging Deputy Defense Secretary William Howard Taft IV to hold a meeting of top Pentagon officials to work out procurement reforms. Weinberger scribbled in a note in the margin of a memo from Taft that the meeting might be a "preemptive strike," according to an official.
The meeting, held Wednesday, lasted 4 1/2 hours and resulted in decisions to give Pentagon auditors greater authority to set overhead rates for defense contractors and to establish task forces to review contract cost accounting standards, according to a participant.
"There was a sense of urgency in what the department can do to demonstrate to Congress and the public that we're serious about reform," he said.
Presidential advisers have urged Reagan to initiate an outside review of Pentagon procurement to regain public confidence in the management of his defense buildup. They argue that the barrage of "horror stories" about outrageous contractor billings has eroded congressional support for the military, resulting in deep cuts in the administration's defense budget after years of generous increases.
One White House official, bemoaning congressional plans to limit defense spending in fiscal 1986 to the rate of inflation, said that budget cutters in Congress have "made good use" of the procurement scandals, such as Navy purchases of $659 airplane ashtrays.
He said the president believes that Weinberger has done an "outstanding job of ferreting out" procurement problems and that an independent commission would "reflect good work done" by the Pentagon.
"We think there should be a consensus for a strong defense," he said. "It's not easy to maintain that consensus year after year and there's plenty of recognition that we have to work harder to rebuild it. Independent commissions have a way of reinforcing credibility."
Weinberger, who has been defense secretary throughout the Reagan buildup, contends that criticism of his management is unfair because Pentagon auditors have uncovered many of the procurement problems.
Declaring a "get-tough" policy against defense contractors earlier this year, he has tightened regulations on overhead costs to prevent the recurrence of such charges as kennel fees for an executive's dog.
A senior defense official said the secretary privately opposes plans for an independent commission because "it looks like he can't manage his department."
Apparently hoping to show the Pentagon can solve acquisition problems itself, Taft called the meeting Wednesday of the Defense Council on Integrity and Management Improvement, which included the service undersecretaries, comptroller, general counsel, deputy inspector general and procurement officials.
"Taft felt this would once and for all fix up the procurement process," an official said. "If this group did all it was supposed to do, you wouldn't need a commission."