WASHINGTON -- President Bush halted yesterday the unrestricted use of military aircraft by White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu following a review of his travel practices that revealed that personal and political trips had been misclassified.
Under a new policy put into effect by Mr. Bush yesterday, military planes will no longer be available to Mr. Sununu for purely political trips. Personal travel aboard the military aircraft will only be approved in emergency instances.
In each case, final determination of whether Mr. Sununu or National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft should travel aboard a military plane is to be made by the office of the White House counsel.
The sharp tightening of a travel policy that has been in effect since 1987 amounted to a clear repudiation of the manner in which it has been applied by Mr. Sununu, whose travel records have been the subject of intense scrutiny following initial reports by the Washington Post and U.S. News & World Report.
Mr. Bush, in adopting the recommendation of White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray, agreed with the central thrust of the original policy: that security considerations and communications concerns often "make commercial air travel an unacceptable alternative" for the chief of staff and the national security adviser.
But he also included a concern that "military aircraft are used only when necessary" and a desire "to avoid the appearance that taxpayer dollars are being used to subsidize political travel."
In a separate review of Mr. Sununu's travel records since the Bush administration took office in 1989, Mr. Gray found three instances in which personal trips were improperly labeled official -- including two ski trips to Mr. Sununu's native New Hampshire -- and four cases in which political trips were mislabled as official. Reimbursements were required in instances where they had not already been made.
Conversely, four trips labeled political were deemed actually to have been official, and some reimbursements already made to the government will be returned.
The president is hoping to eliminate what Mr. Gray called "an innocent misunderstanding" in the future by more sharply defining situations in which military planes should be used and by stripping Mr. Sununu and Mr. Scowcroft of their authority to be sole arbiters of their own travel.
For example, personal travel would be allowed to see a close relative who was seriously ill if security, communications or scheduling needs prevented travel on commercial aircraft. But Mr. Gray's review indicated that the policy would not allow Mr. Sununu to use a military plane -- which costs nearly $4,000 an hour to operate -- to visit his dentist in Boston, as he has in the past.
Personal travel would continue to be reimbursed at the current rate of comparable coach fare aboard a commercial plane plus $1.
In the case of political travel, Mr. Bush decided to ban it entirely because of the difficulty in determining reimbursements, according to a senior White House official.
Some critics of Mr. Sununu's travel have suggested that it isn't fair to allow the Republican groups paying for his travel to reimburse the government at the commercial rate when it costs the taxpayers so much more to get him there.
As a practical matter, the new policy is not considered likely to clip Mr. Sununu's wings much.
He will still be allowed to conduct personal and political business when he travels by military plane, as long as the main purpose of the trip is determined by Mr. Gray's office to be official and reimbursements are provided for the non-official segments of travel.
But Mr. Sununu would not be able to repeat instances such as the two family ski outings in New Hampshire he labeled official because he was promoting the charity organization sponsoring the event as an example of what Mr. Bush calls "Points of Light" volunteer activities.
"It cannot be the case that any federal official's participation in a particular charitable activity of his choice is official solely because it is in furtherance of the goals of the president's Points of Lights initiative," Mr. Gray wrote in his review of Mr. Sununu's records.
Reimbursements for one of the trips in 1991 and family expenses related to the other in 1990 were made earlier. As a result of Mr. Gray's review, an additional $338 was contributed to cover the cost of Mr. Sununu's travel in 1990.
As with nearly all of his personal reimbursements, the money came from a campaign fund left over since Mr. Sununu's days as a three-term governor of New Hampshire.