Aspin's illness complicates problems at Pentagon CLINTON ADMINISTRATION

February 25, 1993|By Charles W. Corddry | Charles W. Corddry,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Les Aspin's serious illness has complicated the problems facing a Clinton administration military establishment that is short on civilian leadership and long on a need for critical decisions.

When he was hospitalized Sunday with a heart ailment, Mr. Aspin was the only administration appointee to the Pentagon so far who had received Senate approval and moved in to run the world's largest enterprise.

Sen. Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat who chairs the Armed Services Committee, had jested that Mr. Aspin was "home alone" and called for a speedup in appointments.

"A lot of stuff is stacking up in the in-box and soon will interfere with the effective running of the Defense Department and dealings with other departments," a longtime civilian official said yesterday.

Mr. Aspin, who may be confined at home after his scheduled departure from the hospital tomorrow, was still groping over organizational matters up to the moment he was rushed to intensive care with a breathing problem Sunday.

Mr. Aspin's doctors may implant a pacemaker to relieve the symptoms of his chronic heart ailment that has worsened over the past two years, a defense official told the Associated Press yesterday.

Meanwhile, early decisions are urgently needed on organization, high-level civilian appointments, budget cuts, base closings and the general condition of defense at the start of a new administration.

Congressional armed services committees are awaiting information on all such matters.

Problems may soon be eased with the installation of William J. Perry as deputy defense secretary. His nomination was sent to the Senate yesterday, and the Armed Services Committee scheduled a hearing for today, with early confirmation expected.

Mr. Perry held the No. 3 position in the Carter administration's Defense Department as director of research and engineering. Many of the high-technology weapons that were to star in the 1991 Persian Gulf war were designed and developed under his and Defense Secretary Harold Brown's direction.

Under the Pentagon organization that now seems to be taking shape in Mr. Aspin's thinking, the former Wisconsin congressman would ride herd on defense policy. Mr. Perry would be in charge of personnel, finances, weapons and other equipment.

Mr. Aspin, working with military leaders and a few aides brought along from Congress, had yet to make final decisions on military budget cuts for the next fiscal year at the time he was hospitalized.

The White House Office of Management and Budget had given him an overall target, but he must come up with the list of detailed cuts.

At about this time of year, after careful surveys of world conditions, defense secretaries give Congress a report on the nation's defense posture and a justification for changes they want to make.

It now appears that Mr. Aspin's report may come in late March or early April, according to congressional committee sources.

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