Wednesday, October 15, 2008

John McCain’s Tanker Trouble

At tonight’s debate you may hear John McCain once again brag about how he went after government waste by blocking the Pentagon’s troubled Boeing tanker contract that ended with people going to jail. John McCain is very proud of this fact: he mentioned it at the last debate, and he keeps bringing up like it’s the crowning achievement of a mavericky taxpayer avenger.

Sure, when all was said and done, former Pentagon procurement officer Darleen Druyun was given nine months in prison, Boeing CFO Michael Sears went to prison for four months, Boeing’s CEO Phillip Condit was fired, and the Air Force cancelled the contract. But that's not the entire story.

I've blogged about this saga before, lots of folks have. But it's one of those things that seems to be fading from the collective memory. Because every time John McCain brings it up, you'd think someone would say, "hey, isn't that the deal where you ended up looking like a walking case of lobbyist intervention at the expense of American jobs?" The fact that no one does make me think it's time to send folks a little reminder about John McCain's real role in this whole thing.

So yes, McCain launched the Senate investigation that uncovered the fraud and shut the deal down, so kudos to him for that. But I’m not sure I’d be bragging about this when subsequent investigations have revealed a few disturbing facts.

Newsweek did an excellent story on this back in June. If you want to debunk the myth that John McCain single-handedly slayed the dragon of Pentagon waste by virtue of his mavericky-ness, give it a read. And you can start with the headline:
McCain’s Boeing Battle Boomerangs

Yes, it seems the Boeing tanker story did come back to bite McCain on the ankle, more than once. For one thing, when the Pentagon put the contract up for bid again, it got awarded to Boeing’s big rival, Northrop Grumman, and the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. (EADS).

So in other words, John McCain sent American jobs overseas and, as MarketWatch noted, gave a big wet kiss in the form of a $35 billion piece of America’s defense budget to a European firm.

This was back in June and even I remember the hullabaloo this created. Why would John McCain do such a thing? Doesn’t he love America and American workers? Funny thing:

The auditors' ruling has also cast light on an overlooked aspect of McCain's crusade: five of his campaign's top advisers and fund-raisers—including Tom Loeffler, who resigned last month as his finance co-chairman, and Susan Nelson, his finance director—were registered lobbyists for EADS.

Oh, say it ain’t so!

But it gets worse. John McCain personally intervened to ensure the bidding process was favorable to EADS:

Critics, including some at the Pentagon, cite in particular two tough letters McCain wrote to Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England in 2006 and another to Robert Gates, just prior to his confirmation as Defense secretary. In the first letter, dated Sept. 8, 2006, McCain wrote of hearing from "third parties" that the Air Force was about to redo the tanker competition by factoring in European government subsidies to EADS—a condition that could have seriously hurt the EADS bid. McCain urged that the Pentagon drop the subsidy factor and posed a series of technical questions about the Air Force's process.

"He was trying to jam us and bully us to make sure there was competition by giving EADS an advantage," said one senior Pentagon official, who asked for anonymity when discussing a politically sensitive matter. The assumption within the Pentagon, the official added, was that McCain's letters were drafted by EADS lobbyists.

"There was no one else that would have had that level of detail," the official said.

Of course, the uproar over awarding a defense contract to a European firm and the funny business with McCain’s advisors caused this deal to be cancelled, too. Back in September Defense Secetary Robert Gates passed the decision off to the next administration:

“We can no longer complete a competition that would be viewed as fair and objective in this highly charged environment,” Mr. Gates said in a statement. “The resulting ‘cooling off’ period will allow the next administration to review objectively the military requirements and craft a new acquisition strategy” for the tanker program.

If John McCain wins the election, three guesses as to who’s going to get that tanker contract.