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:: December 2004 Letter ::

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Dear Fellow Scandal Watchers,

There are few greater guilty pleasures in life than reading other people’s mail. And thanks to Senator John McCain, for whom Christmas came early this year, we all get to share this experience. After the resignations of Air Force Secretary Jim Roche and Assistant Secretary Marvin Sambur, McCain released scores of nasty emails related to the 767 tanker lease debacle, sprinkling salt on scorched earth and generally muddying up Pentagon-Congress relations for years to come.

First, McCain has a point. I maintain that there’s nothing wrong with the idea of a commercial lease for aircraft procurement; you pay more in the long run, just as you would with a house mortgage. But the Air Force tried to use this channel to expand its procurement budget authority. They wanted to keep their cherished fighter programs (which look set to absorb every spare Procurement dollar) while finding another cash stream for tankers. McCain’s right—this looks aggressive and greedy, even if the mechanism and objectives were reasonable. Roche and his allies suppressed talk of competition and debate about the contract. The service also exaggerated KC-135 corrosion data. McCain deserves much credit for uncovering this.

But then there’s the way McCain presented the emails, particularly in his November 19 speech on the Senate floor. He wanted to prove there was something much more serious going on. McCain implied that corruption between Darleen Druyun and Boeing’s Mike Sears automatically meant corruption inherent in the entire deal. He implied that Roche, the Air Force, and indeed much of Washington, are engulfed in a giant pro-Boeing conspiracy. Yet despite the unpleasant nature of the emails, there is no evidence implicating anyone in the Air Force, other than Druyun, in any kind of corruption. Boeing’s tarnished image may have taken another bashing, but there’s nothing that indicates additional corruption between the company and the Air Force.

Also, anyone who’s ever used email to talk politics with a friend, or to argue with a significant other, knows it is an awful mode of communication. It has the immediate shoot-from-the-hip quality of a spoken argument, and the permanence of a written letter. It’s almost impossible to not look bad. We also know that three principals in this conflict—Roche, McCain, and EADS North America CEO Ralph Crosby—have considerable “history” between them. Without full knowledge of this history, the public meaning of these emails loses context.

McCain began his speech by implicating Defense News editor Vago Muradian in this conspiracy. Muradian is accused of promoting the deal by publishing a retired US admiral’s pro-lease editorial, which was actually ghostwritten by Boeing. Yet when Defense News learned that this piece came from Boeing, they heavily criticized it in a second editorial that was ignored by McCain. Their coverage of the debate has been quite evenhanded.

It’s important to look at motives. McCain and supporters like to employ the term “Boeing bailout.” But at no point in the past five years did Boeing need a bailout, from any kind of fiscal perspective. This tanker deal would not have made a crucial difference in Boeing’s financial health. The reality looks much less grandiose. The 767 line is dying. The Air Force wanted to preserve the 767 option for its tanker plans, rather than rely on a choice between an Airbus, a used aircraft, or something new and uncertain. They also didn’t want to risk F/A-22 or F-35 funding by diverting cash to start buying KC-767s. Boeing too wanted to save the 767, and to get the extra business. The two entities cooperated to make this happen.

The result was unseemly, but non-scandalous. Yet put it next to the Druyun-Sears horror, throw in some ugly-looking emails, blame the media, and you’ve got a scandal right out-of-the-box and made-for-HBO. Some pro-lease legislators have now joined McCain in calling for further investigations, proving the old Arab saying: “When the camel goes down, more daggers are drawn.”

To be fair, further investigations would be useful, if only to dispel fears of deeper corruption. Yet the most frustrating thing about reading people’s mail is knowing that there’s more out there, and that we won’t get to read it. For example, are there communications between McCain’s office and EADS? What do those emails look like? What role did the various other anti-767 tanker think tanks play, and what were their behind-the-scenes communications? How many of the parties involved knew that the likely consequence of their actions would be the death of the 767 line? How many of them wanted exactly that outcome?

So, as of Thanksgiving 2004, here we are: Roche and Sambur will join Phil Condit as tanker career casualties, which isn’t nearly as bad as Darleen Druyun and Mike Sear’s fate. Meaningless reforms will be enacted, after additional hand wringing and grandstanding. You can already hear a loud sucking sound of email deletions in the Washington area. Despite all the talk of a new tanker competition, the Air Force will reveal that the current tanker fleet isn’t in such bad shape after all. The service will continue to prioritize cash for fighters, putting off tankers until 2010, or later.

And the 767 line will die within the next two years. Ultimately, the Air Force will get converted used jetliners, KC-7E7s, or perhaps KC-A330/350s. Hopefully, there will be an open competition.

Back in the small world of programs, Teal aircraft updates this month include the F/A-18, AH-64, Su-27/30, F-14, Falcon, Tucano, OH-58, A109, B609, and AWACS. Have a great holiday season.

Yours, ‘Til The 1,000th Hearing,

Richard Aboulafia

 

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