Senators want proof that ‘clerical error’ hasn’t hurt Boeing bid

Eight senators are pressing the Pentagon inspector general to investigate a data mix-up that they say may have harmed Boeing’s chances of winning a multi-billion dollar aerial tanker competition.

The group’s call for an IG probe comes as the Air Force is just weeks away from awarding a contract to either Boeing or EADS in the hotly contested battle for a $35 billion, 179-plane contract. Should Gen. Gordon Heddell, the Pentagon’s top investigator, decide to launch an investigation, it would provide yet another setback in the Air Force’s drama-plagued efforts to buy new tankers.

“At a minimum, we know that the [Integrated Fleet Aerial Refueling Assessment] score data was compromised,” Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and seven other senators said in a letter to Heddell. “That is why it is critical that your investigation determine whether the data breach compromises the IFARA adjustment to price, and more broadly, whether the data breach creates an unfair competitive advantage for the bidder that looked at the other bidder’s proprietary data.”

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The letter also was signed by Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), and Pat Roberts (R-Kan.). Boeing would do tanker work in Washington and Kansas, and is headquartered in Chicago.

Late last year, the Air Force sent information to tanker rivals Boeing and EADS — but the packages got mixed up, and each competitor received the other’s bid information. The service quickly branded the mishap a “clerical error,” saying both firms quickly returned the packages without closely examining the contents.

The data sent to each company contained an Air Force assessment of the bidders’ IFARA model, a complex tool that factors in a number of data points about the aircraft, including how large bases must be to accommodate them, how much fuel they burn, how long runways must be, and other things.

An Air Force investigation, which included forensic analyses of all discs and computers involved, cleared both companies of wrongdoing.

During a Thursday Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the incident, however, service officials were unable to tell the panel whether the data viewed by an EADS employee — who the company says was immediately removed from its tanker team — has given the service an edge.

Boeing’s allies on Capitol Hill are not satisfied with those reassurances, saying the Air Force has yet to convincingly prove EADS was not given an advantage by the mishap.

What’s more, industry insiders say Boeing officials suspect EADS viewed more data than they have shared with Pentagon investigators.

“The release of this data may very well have been a clerical error,” said Loren Thompson, a defense consultant and COO of the Lexington Institute. “But it may also have given a leg up to one of the competitors.”

Both companies contend their employees followed proper security guidelines and no data about their rival’s proposal has been shared with their tanker program offices.

Ralph Crosby, chairman of EADS North America, said Friday in a statement his firm “would welcome an investigation by the DoD inspector general, if such an investigation does not delay the decision on acquisition of new tankers.

“Scandal and protest have kept this badly needed system out of the hands of our service men and women long enough,” Crosby said. “We are interested in illuminating unambiguous facts, not in a tactic for delaying the decision process.”

A Boeing spokesman said Friday the firm has no comment about a possible IG investigation.

The European firm’s congressional friends say the service’s probe has cleared EADS of any nefarious actions. During the hearing, EADS supporter Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said the case should be closed and the competition should proceed toward a contract award. EADS would assemble its tankers at a facility in Mobile, Ala.

For their part, Air Force officials told the panel the IFARA data is not proprietary, as has been previously reported and as Cantwell again alleged in her statement.

About 20 days after the mix-up, service leaders decided the fair move was to provide both competitors data about each other’s IFARA score.

Air Force officials did so due to “a perception” that EADS had gained an advantage over Boeing, Air Force Maj. Gen. Wendy Masiello, program executive officer for combat and mission support, told the Senate panel. The service decided that providing the data would “level the playing field,” she added.

Senators said that the Air Force witnesses at Thursday’s hearing were not able to clear up questions about the relevance of the IFARA model, nor about how having a rival’s score for three weeks longer might change the competition.

“At a minimum, we know that the IFARA score data was compromised,” the senators wrote to the inspector general. “That is why it is critical that your investigation determine whether the data breach compromises the IFARA adjustment to price, and more broadly, whether the data breach creates an unfair competitive advantage for the bidder that looked at the other bidder’s proprietary data.”

The pro-Boeing group also seized upon the service’s decision to rectify the mix-up by handing each competitor the firm’s score.

“With each bidder knowing its own interim IFARA score and that of its competitor, it is hard to believe that it will not affect each bidder’s final proposal revision, if they choose to submit one,” the senators wrote.

During Thursday’s hearing, some panel members floated the idea of throwing out the IFARA model because of the mishap. EADS supporters called for the competition to proceed as quickly as possible.