WASHINGTON - A majority of the members of the independent commission assessing the Pentagon's proposed list of domestic base closings says that the Defense Department probably overstated the nearly $50 billion in savings projected over 20 years - nearly half of which could amount to pay for personnel simply moving from one base to another.
In interviews last week with six of the nine members, they expressed varying degrees of concern about the accuracy of the Pentagon figures and said they had directed the commission's staff to conduct a separate savings analysis before the commission's final votes on the military's recommendations this month.
After scores of base visits and public hearings, most of the commission members interviewed said they agreed with a report issued this summer by federal investigators that concluded that nearly half of the Pentagon's projected savings came from cuts in military jobs that, in many cases, would simply be reassigned to other installations.
"I fail to see at this point how you could arrive at the figures they arrived at," said Anthony J. Principi, a former secretary of veterans affairs who is the commission chairman. "We're going through this effort to save money from excess capacity to modernize forces. If the savings aren't there, and it costs money to do this on top of all the economic upheaval, why are we doing this?"
A Pentagon spokesman, Glenn Flood, defended the Defense Department's analysis and said it was preparing a detailed explanation of the projected savings for the commission. "We stand by what we said," Flood said.
The commission, whose members include retired military officers and former Cabinet members or members of Congress, must submit its findings to President Bush by Sept. 8. The president and Congress have until Nov. 7 to reject or accept the entire package.
Projected savings will be an important factor in the commission's deliberations, although the military value of the proposed changes is the paramount consideration. Nonetheless, 80 percent of the Pentagon's proposed savings come from just 10 percent of the recommendations, including such contentious changes as the proposed closings of Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, the Navy's submarine base in Groton, Conn., and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine.
Commission members say that if they determine that the Pentagon proposals yield smaller savings than projected, or even cost money over time, that may tip the balance in some of the panel's final votes.
"It will have an impact," said Philip E. Coyle III, a commission member who was the Pentagon's top weapons evaluator for much of the 1990s. "It may be that closures or realignments that were proposed, in part because they would save money, may actually cost money. The whole idea is to save taxpayers money, and if it costs the taxpayers money, I think that would cause the commissioners to have a second look."
Commissioners say it is too early to predict what decisions will emerge from four days of public deliberations that are scheduled to begin on Aug. 24 in Crystal City, Va., just outside Washington. But the panel is nearing the end of a process that could close, consolidate or realign more than 800 military facilities in all 50 states.
The commission said Friday that it had invited Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to testify in a rare Saturday session next week to provide the Pentagon's final comments before the panel begins final deliberations.
This month, Bush signaled he would accept the panel's recommendations without objection and send them on to Congress for approval. "In order for the process to be nonpolitical, it's very important to make it clear that the decision of the BRAC will stand, as far as I am concerned," Bush told reporters, using the acronym for the Base Realignment and Closure Commission.
By law, the commission must give priority to the military value of the proposed changes - that is, what would improve the readiness and combat effectiveness of the armed forces. That could include more spacious training areas and the ability to move forces quickly in a crisis.
"The first goal of the BRAC is to improve the war-fighting capability," Maj. Gen. Gary Heckman, co-director of the Air Force's base-closing analysis team, told the commission July 18.
But cost savings have always been an important selling point for the politically divisive base-closing process, which had previous rounds in 1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995.
Rumsfeld said the proposed changes under review would save about $5.5 billion a year, after initial closing costs of $24 billion were paid, and $48.8 billion over 20 years. The previous four rounds of base closings saved a total of $29 billion through 2003, according to the Government Accountability Office. "By making these changes, the American taxpayer benefits," Rumsfeld told the commission May 16.