Sen. Chambliss apologizes for Raptor leak accusation

After Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) suggested yesterday that he believed that congressional staffers had leaked damaging information to the media pertaining to the F-22A Raptor, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was quick to respond.

“I suspect we all know where that came from,” Chambliss said in his opening statement during a Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearing, adding that he thought it was staff who “does not appreciate the contract” who leaked the information to The Washington Post.

A crimson McCain swiftly asked Chambliss, “Which staff would you be referring to?”

Chambliss recanted and said he did not know. “I have no idea. But I intend to ask, senator, as to where it came from because frankly the information in that article is not just incorrect, but it’s immaterial.” he said. “And be assured that I will share it with you — any information I find out about that.”

A few hours later, Danielle Brian, executive director of the independent Project on Government Oversight (POGO), told the Senate panel that her organization had given the information to the Post. Chambliss then apologized to McCain for implying that it was staff who leaked the information.

Chambliss, whose state is home to the Lockheed Martin F-22 plant, scored a major victory last month when the Senate approved his amendment to allow for a multiyear procurement plan for the Air Force’s long-in-coming F-22A fighter jet. Both McCain and Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), the Armed Services chairman, strongly opposed the amendment.

In his remarks yesterday, Chambliss was referring to a Post article that reported the head of a federally financed research center could reap financial benefits from having endorsed a controversial procurement plan for the Raptor.

McCain, vice chairman of the Armed Services Committee and chairman of the Airland Subcommittee, with jurisdiction over the Air Force’s aircraft procurement, scheduled yesterday’s hearing for testimony on the multiyear procurement plan. On the same day, the Post revealed that the president of the Institute of Defense Analyses (IDA), retired Navy Adm. Dennis Blair, is a member of the board of EDO Corp., a subcontractor to Lockheed Martin, which builds the F-22, and holds options to buy tens of thousands of shares in the company.

POGO released a report yesterday on its investigation into whether Blair has a financial conflict of interest.

POGO’s Brian said that Blair was not an author of the IDA report that endorsed the multiyear procurement but that as president “he likely would have reviewed this report before it was made available to the government.”

Based in part on IDA’s endorsement report, the Air Force decided to go ahead with the multiyear procurement. Congressional supporters of the plan also resorted to the same report to substantiate some of their arguments in favor.

Chambliss questioned the timing of the article, noting that it came out the same day of the hearing.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) a senior member of the panel and a supporter of multiyear procurement, said, “I am sure that some people rejoice at the article.” Inhofe added that information was leaked to the Post right before the hearing.

Warner, who joined the subcommittee’s hearing, indicated that he did not take lightly the passing of Chambliss’s amendment as part of the defense authorization bill.

“I have been on this committee for 28 years,” he said. In those years, he said, he never encountered such a reversal on the Senate floor after both the subcommittee and the full committee decided against multiyear procurement.

“It was the consequence of an extraordinary lobby campaign, which frankly I was unaware of,” Warner added.

Warner called the details of the Post report “extremely serious” and “disturbing.” He noted that Blair did not recuse himself from the process.

The House has given a tentative green light to the multiyear strategy with the caveat that full approval of the three-year buying strategy is contingent on receiving specific justification documents from the Air Force justifying the new plan.

McCain and Warner still have a chance to reverse the Senate’s vote in conference negotiations.

Warner warned the Air Force that the decision it makes could affect the multinational Joint Strike Fighter, which faces some problems of its own.

“We have to go ahead with that program,” and decisions such as F-22 procurement cannot be viewed in a vacuum, he added.

Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne stood strongly behind the Air Force’s plan for multiyear procurement. He tried to alleviate concerns about delays and cost increases.

“I am confident to date that there won’t be any more cost overruns,” Wynne said.

He added that the program faced “fiscal realities” from its inception, which is why it has been stretched out so long. “This program has not been treated well due to government decisions,” he said.

As part of its budget request, the Air Force wanted to begin procurement for 60 F-22A aircraft over a three-year period starting in 2008 to keep the production lines open beyond 2010. The service included a $2 billion request for parts necessary for building the planes in coming years and no money to buy the actual aircraft in fiscal year 2007. The multiyear strategy would bring an estimated savings of $225 million, the Air Force and Lockheed Martin contended.

But Comptroller General David Walker said in testimony that to procure the planes under a multiyear contract would cost about $1.7 billion more when compared to the costs the program would have incurred under the president’s 2006 budget proposal.

Walker’s assertions did not sit well with Chambliss, who disputed Walker’s cost assumptions and said multi-year procurement brings stability.