A howitzer where it's needed

May 08, 2002

IT'S DIFFICULT not to feel a measure of sympathy for the Secretary of the Army. For months, Thomas E. White has had to put up with a steady flow of questions about all sorts of seeming improprieties, the most recent of which has left him in a classic bind - one that forces him to appear either guilty or clueless - and now on top of that his Pentagon boss is making life impossible for him over a howitzer.

Mr. White - a former Enron executive who is reportedly under investigation for insider trading, appears to have used his position to try to help his old company and is now linked to the manufactured energy crisis in California in 2000 - may yet be forced to resign from the Army. On a matter of principle!

Granted, it's a principle not worth standing up for, but who's quibbling? That he could find one at all is amazing. Since taking his job a year ago, the former brigadier general has barely been able to put a foot right. He dawdled at selling off his Enron shares. He made dozens of calls to Enron officials as the company was tanking, then tried to pretend he hadn't. He apparently took an Army plane to Colorado so he could close on the sale of his vacation house.

Last month, California regulators testified that Mr. White's division had been involved in trading electricity with other Enron affiliates at hugely inflated prices during the energy crisis there, driving up costs statewide. Documents released by Enron on Monday appear to confirm that. It's not likely that Mr. White was the brains behind that scheme - but what does that say about him as an administrator?

Through all this, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has backed him up. But then last week Mr. Rumsfeld let it be known that he planned to kill an $11 billion howitzer called the Crusader. Army officials - evidently not including Mr. White himself - went to Congress to try to rescue the program. Mr. Rumsfeld hit the roof.

The Army knows that if it loses that $11 billion, a lot of it is going to get spread around to the Navy, Air Force and, worst of all, the Marines. The Crusader is a ridiculously unnecessary weapon - but it's the Army's weapon, after all, and Mr. White has been a dedicated advocate for it. It may be a loser, but it's the principle of the thing.

Yesterday Mr. Rumsfeld said Mr. White still had his support, but the Crusader is starting to look like a sword that the defense chief has handed to his subordinate. Do the honorable thing, Mr. Rumsfeld seems to be hinting, and go fall on it. That way, Mr. White could pretend that he was leaving for the best of motives - but at least he'd be leaving.

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