Turf battles blamed for scuttling move of general to NASA job

Agency head's naming of Bolden is blocked by Pentagon, Congress

March 15, 2002|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - A Marine general's expected move to a top NASA post was sidetracked by politics and turf battles, not by the needs of the war on terrorism, congressional and Pentagon officials say.

The war was the official explanation why Maj. Gen. Charles F. Bolden Jr., a 1968 Naval Academy graduate, one-time deputy commandant of the academy and four-time space shuttle astronaut, is no longer in line to become the deputy administrator of NASA. The nomination was abruptly withdrawn Wednesday by the White House - one day before his Senate confirmation hearing.

Explaining the withdrawal, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said in a statement that while Bolden has "impeccable credentials" for the post, America "at this critical juncture ... must focus all its military resources on the immediate national security imperatives."

But those familiar with the situation said O'Keefe was bested in a political struggle, with NASA on one side, Congress and the Pentagon on the other.

O'Keefe declined to discuss the matter yesterday. His staff said he arranged to have language inserted into this year's defense appropriations bill allowing the president to appoint an active-duty military officer to the No. 2 post at NASA, which by statute is a civilian position.

One congressional aide said O'Keefe, a former Navy secretary with Capitol Hill experience, "oversold" his ability to pull off the Bolden move.

The problem was that the Senate Armed Services Committee and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld were not told of the plan, and the measure became law, officials said. Bolden, 55, who commands the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at Miramar, Calif., was nominated by President Bush for the NASA job Feb. 26.

Besides being an astronaut, Bolden served as deputy assistant administrator of NASA from 1992 to 1994. He is currently the highest-ranking African-American in the Marine Corps.

The corps supported Bolden's switch to NASA and the three-star promotion he would receive, said Pentagon sources, who said O'Keefe assured the corps the position would not be counted against their number of three-star billets, which stands at 13.

Bolden did not want to retire and take the job, say those who know him. A Bolden spokesman, Maj. T.V. Johnson, said, "The general hasn't expressed any desire to discuss the withdrawal now."

Late last week, Rumsfeld met with O'Keefe and told him "the military's not [O'Keefe's] turf, leave my officers alone," said someone familiar with the discussion. Rumsfeld reiterated his position that he doesn't want the military engaged in nonmilitary activities, said an administration official.

Tuesday, the leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee weighed in with a letter to White House counsel Alberto Gonzales objecting to the appointment.

"Our research has not shown any precedent in the contemporary history of the United States for having an active duty military officer in such a position," wrote Sens. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and the committee's chairman, and John W. Warner of Virginia, the committee's senior Republican. Such an appointment would be "inconsistent" with "the longstanding tradition of separation between the military and the civilian chains of command," the senators wrote.

They also noted the "clear precedent" for military officers retiring from the service before taking on top posts, such as Rear Adm. Richard H. Truly, who retired from the military before becoming NASA administrator in 1989.

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