Rumsfeld backs Army secretary

Defense chief denies White to lose job over Crusader program

May 08, 2002|By David L. Greene and Tom Bowman | David L. Greene and Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday expressed full confidence in his embattled Army secretary, Thomas E. White, denying reports that White would lose his job because the Army tried to undercut Rumsfeld's efforts to ax a popular weapons program.

The White House said President Bush also has faith in White.

Rumsfeld left no doubt that he was infuriated Army officials contacted lawmakers and made a case for salvaging the $11 billion Crusader artillery program, which Pentagon officials say they want to eliminate. But Rumsfeld said White personally assured him that he was unaware of "talking points" circulated on Capitol Hill last week to defend Crusader.

"That's the end of that, as far as I'm concerned," Rumsfeld said. Asked by reporters whether he had full confidence in White, Rumsfeld said, "I do." He also said he expected White, 58 and a decorated Vietnam veteran, to remain in his job at least through the remainder of this year.

"I have no reason why he shouldn't. He's done a good job," the secretary said.

Presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush "has confidence" in White and "thinks he's doing a good job in his post."

As Army secretary, White is the civilian head of the service, responsible for personnel, training and numerous other matters. However, he is not in the operational chain of command.

The display of support for White came amid reports that he would be fired - even if he had no direct knowledge of the lobbying effort on Capitol Hill.

The incident showcased an internal squabble in the Defense Department and was an embarrassment for an administration that tries assiduously to speak with one voice.

A report on the matter by the Pentagon's inspector general is due out today, but it is not expected to implicate White. Rumsfeld made it clear he believed that officials - perhaps in the office of congressional relations - were responsible.

One Army official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said a fellow officer drafted the talking points, which were to be used internally, but a mid-level civilian political appointee faxed the document to lawmakers.

"Did somebody in congressional relations - or somebodies - get way in the dickens out of line? You bet your life they did," Rumsfeld said. "Do I think they'll do it again? No."

Rumsfeld held open the possibility that someone junior to White might be punished after he reads the report. "It isn't a matter of ready, shoot, aim; it's ready, aim, fire - and we're still in the aiming business," he said.

An Army official said White and Rumsfeld discussed the matter privately yesterday.

Also, according to the Associated Press, Rumsfeld sent White a newspaper yesterday morning with a front-page story saying that the Army secretary was about to be canned. Rumsfeld scrawled "all baloney" on a sticky note - or something to that effect - and attached it to the newspaper, one official said.

Speculation abounded about White's possible removal even before the Crusader debate. White, a former senior Enron Corp. official, was under pressure from lawmakers to explain contacts he had with former colleagues of the now-bankrupt Houston energy giant before he sold his shares in the company. White has denied any wrongdoing.

White is also being investigated by the Defense Department for allegedly doing personal business on a trip in which he flew on an Army jet.

At issue in his current troubles is the Crusader, a mobile artillery vehicle that is to be introduced by the Army into the field in 2008.

Advocates say that the land-based Crusader could fire shells farther, faster and with greater precision than the Army's current Paladin artillery system. Officials say, for example, that a Crusader could fire from inside the Washington Beltway and accurately hit a target on the infield at Camden Yards.

The Pentagon initially earmarked $475 million for the program in Bush's proposed budget for next year, and White went to Capitol Hill to fight for it.

Army officials say Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz broke the news to White last week that the Crusader was going to be scrapped in a budget-trimming effort. White was distraught, officials said, and felt that it made no sense for him to argue on Capitol Hill to cut a program he had lobbied for only weeks earlier.

The dispute, some officials say, reflects broader differences within the Pentagon over the future of the military. Some officials believe that the armed forces should shift to rely more on air power in coming years.

But other officials, especially in the Army, say that planes can be grounded by bad weather and are vulnerable to surface-to-air missiles.

For that reason, the Pentagon should not seek to eliminate land-based weapons programs such as the all-weather Crusader, which can provide precise and immediate rapid fire in support of ground troops, Army officials say.

The Crusader program has significant support on Capitol Hill, notably from three Oklahoma Republicans - Sens. Don Nickles, the Republican whip, and James M. Inhofe and Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. - who represent the state where Crusaders would be assembled.

Rumsfeld yesterday hinted that he might be open to salvaging at least some of the program, saying that "the decision on Crusader is being refined."

He made clear, however, that he was willing to press for cuts in weapons programs, even in the face of protests from lawmakers as well as people inside his department.

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