WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Dick Cheney fired Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael J. Dugan yesterday after the four-star general disclosed sensitive plans to unleash massive bombing raids against Baghdad to kill Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and destroy critical military and industrial targets.
"We never talk about future operations such as the selection of specific targets for potential air strikes; we never talk about the targeting of specific individuals who are officials of other governments," said Mr. Cheney, explaining his extraordinary action at a Pentagon news conference.
General Dugan will retire, Mr. Cheney said. Selected as his replacement was Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, commander-in-chief of Pacific Air Forces based in Hawaii.
Mr. Cheney, who consulted President Bush before confronting General Dugan yesterday, accused the general of violating U.S. policy to keep military contingency plans under wraps. General Dugan, a 32-year Air Force veteran and former Vietnam combat pilot, allegedly released classified information in his statements, although Mr. Cheney said he did not intend to seek legal action.
Mr. Cheney suggested that General Dugan's disclosures, contained in newspaper interviews published yesterday, could upset "a very important, carefully built international coalition" assembled by U.S. officials to defend Saudi Arabia and force an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait.
"Under the circumstances, the conduct of U.S. national security policy is an extremely delicate task," he said. "The statements attributed to General Dugan ... as confirmed by him to me did not in my mind reveal an adequate understanding of the situation and what is expected of him as chief of staff of the Air Force."
General Dugan issued a statement expressing regret for "any embarrassment" to the administration: "I was presenting my personal views, and they should not be construed to reflect any plans, or the position of any other member of the administration or the Department of Defense."
The 53-year-old general, whom Mr. Cheney picked to become the Air Force's top officer July 1, told reporters the Joint Chiefs had concluded that air power was the only effective option to force Iraqi troops from Kuwait if war erupted.
In addition to indicating likely targets of U.S. air strikes, attributed to General Dugan or unidentified military officials, there were also disclosures of help from Israel, including advice on targets and supplies of a new Israeli-built Have Nap cruise missile, an accurate weapon with a 50-mile range that has been loaded on U.S. B-52 bombers.
Defense officials said that General Dugan, the Air Force's top officer, had been warned not to discuss U.S. military options with reporters after the Los Angeles Times first quoted him Aug. 24 as saying the Joint Chiefs favored a "decisive" air attack to destroy Mr. Hussein and his war-making capacity.
A reporter who traveled with the general said, "He knew he was skating near the edge, but it wasn't anything that hasn't been said before." Others in the Pentagon press corps said his firing will have a chilling effect on other senior military officers who often supplement the official channels of information.
A State Department source said officials initially believed that General Dugan's remarks were authorized by the Pentagon as part of a "psychological warfare" campaign, even though it appeared at odds with assurances by Secretary of State James A. Baker III to U.S. allies that the Bush administration wanted a peaceful, diplomatic resolution.
William B. Quandt, a Middle East analyst at the Brookings Institution, discounted the likelihood that the general's disclosures would have had serious repercussions with allies.
"It's pretty clear it was not [a statement of] American policy, it was a military official talking about what he would do. I think they [foreign governments] will pay attention to the more authoritative voice at this time," Mr. Quandt said.
Yesterday's abrupt firing was only the second ever of a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the powerful circle of military leaders that advises the defense secretary and president. In 1949, President Harry S. Truman fired Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Louis Denfeld after the admiral complained publicly that the Navy was being starved for funding by an Air Force bomber program.