The more the Boeing tanker deal is scrutinized, the worse it looks. The tanker leasing arrangement, now thankfully dead, was questionable on its face, the result of a back-door legislative maneuver; if it had gone through, the Air Force would have paid too much for planes that it might not need, or that at least might not be the best solution to its aging tanker fleet. Then it turned out that negotiations were rigged in Boeing's favor by an Air Force procurement official as a "parting gift" just before she took a $250,000-a-year job at the company. The official, Darleen A. Druyun, has pleaded guilty to ethics charges, along with Boeing's former chief financial officer.
But as much as the Air Force would like to suggest otherwise, the Boeing mess doesn't stop there. The pile of internal e-mails tenaciously extracted by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) show an Air Force leadership more bent on stifling dissenting views from within the military than on determining the best deal for taxpayers; inappropriately cozy with some contractors and personally biased against others; and resolutely uninterested, even now, in determining what went wrong.
E-mails to and from Air Force Secretary James G. Roche, who resigned last week, are particularly disturbing. In May 2003, Boeing lobbyist Paul Weaver told Mr. Roche that Marvin R. Sambur, the Air Force's acquisition chief, "was getting beat up" by Michael W. Wynne, a senior Pentagon procurement official, over the tankers' cost. "It's time for the big guns to quash Wynne!" replied Mr. Roche -- who then repeatedly denied to the Senate Armed Services Committee that he asked Boeing to put pressure on Mr. Wynne.
As chummy as the Air Force was with Boeing, officials were hostile to a possible competitor for the tanker deal, European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. (EADS) and its Airbus division. E-mailing a Raytheon Co. executive, Mr. Roche wrote, "Privately between us: Go Boeing! The fools in Paris and Berlin never did their homework." When Mr. Wynne told Mr. Roche that he had invited the EADS officials to lunch, noting the potential "benefits of competition," he was angrily slapped down. "Mike, you must be out of your mind!!!" Mr. Roche wrote. "We won't be happy with your doing this!"
Mr. Roche is not the only one whose conduct is troubling. Even as she was negotiating with the Air Force about whether the tanker lease was a good deal, Office of Management and Budget Associate Director Robin Cleveland asked Mr. Roche to intercede with former colleagues at Northrop Grumman to help Ms. Cleveland's brother get a job there. Within half an hour, Mr. Roche had passed the material on to the company, noting Ms. Cleveland's key position and endorsing her brother. Then he wrote back to Ms. Cleveland, "Be well. Smile. Give tankers now (Oops, did I say that? . . .)." Ms. Cleveland ended up supporting the leasing deal, but even if she hadn't, her conduct, now under review by the Justice Department, represented an unethical use of her public position. Mr. Roche's actions weren't much better. Incredibly, the Air Force withheld this exchange from Mr. McCain on the grounds that the e-mails were simply joking.
Indeed, one of the most distressing aspects of this entire episode has been the military's stonewalling response to what Mr. Roche, in an e-mail, termed "the enemies of the lease on the Hill." At a meeting last November, following the Druyun firing, according to one e-mail, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld "asked if in light of that should we take a second look at her involvement in any tanker lease related matters in order to deflect possible criticism from the [Senate Armed Services Committee] and unfavorable publicity." You would have hoped Mr. Rumsfeld would want to take a "second look" to figure out what went wrong in his operation, not to deflect criticism or avoid bad press. Mr. McCain put it well in a Senate floor speech: "This appears to be a case of either a system failure in procurement oversight, willful blindness or rank corruption. Either way, full accountability among Air Force leadership is in order."