Senators chafe as Air Force restricts whistleblower again

Those muffled explosions you may hear coming from the Senate these days are the sounds of angry Republicans upset over what they see as Pentagon stonewalling.

The confrontation involves famed Air Force whistleblower A. Ernest Fitzgerald , whom lawmakers would like to have testify on the record about cost overruns, high-priced spare parts, and other aspects of suspected financial mismanagement.

The Senate is expected to subpoena Mr. Fitzgerald, whom the Pentagon Tuesday prevented from testifying in his capacity as an overseer of Air Force financial matters. Fitzgerald is well known for his revelations about cost overruns involving the C-5 military transport aircraft -- for which he was fired -- and his long legal battle to retain his government position.

He is eager to testify. But the Air Force disagrees with his assessment about the way weapons and spare-parts prices are (and ought to be) figured, and says that if he does talk on the record on Capitol Hill, it has to be as a private citizen rather than as a government official.

In March, a similar go-around occurred when Fitzgerald was asked to testify before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee about the Defense Contract Audit Agency. Led by committee chairman Sen. William Roth (R) of Delaware, members of both parties castigated Pentagon officials for attempting to ''muzzle'' Fitzgerald.

This week, a Senate judiciary subcommittee was scheduled to probe the flow of budget information from executive agencies to the Congress, specifically from the Pentagon. Subcommittee chairman Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa has been one of the most outspoken and persistent critics of defense procurement practices. He accuses the Defense Department of not providing sufficient data on financial matters, especially the analyses of civilian experts in the Pentagon who disagree with official positions and projections made by the armed services and political appointees.

Addressing an empty committee room chair where Fitzgerald was to have sat, the sober and visibly angry conservative Republican accused the Air Force of ''engaging in bureaucratic shennanigans.''

''The information that Mr. Fitzgerald speaks of is explosive,'' Senator Grassley said. ''I know. I have collected a substantial amount of such information through my own channels. What it reveals is astounding. It reveals that the vast majority of money we put into major weapons systems is pure waste and inefficiency.''

Even many critics would say that this overstates the case. But information detailed in an internal Pentagon memo does indicate that procurement problems are not limited to a few spare-parts ''horror stories.''

''There are, quite literally, thousands of examples of parts and tools that are priced absurdly high,'' Pentagon analyst Thomas Amlie wrote last week to Fitzgerald. ''The basic problem is that if the contractor claims he spent the money, we pay him what he says he spent, plus a profit. The real story is that everything we buy (aircraft, missiles, tanks, electronic equipment, etc.) is priced just like the spares.''

Defense Department experts like Fitzgerald and Mr. Amlie contend that the problem is in accepting ''standard hour'' costs for defense procurement that often are considerably higher than is found in commercial industry where there is more competition.

''The worst of all possible worlds is when the prime (contractor) is an aerospace giant who fabricates very little himself but assembles subassemblies manufactured by other aerospace giants,'' wrote Amlie. ''In this case the subcontractors charge the $150-$300 per standard hour and the prime (contractor) tacks a hefty handling charge on the material in addition to charging the $150-$ 300 for his contribution in assembling the product.''

''It isn't fraud, it's institutional,'' said Dina Rasor, director of the Project on Military Procurement, a private organization that obtained Amlie's memo. ''That's what scares me.''

In a letter to Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger last week, Senator Roth complained of ''a wide range of management weaknesses'' in the Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA), the Pentagon office charged with making sure the federal government pays a fair price for defense items. While acknowledging the sincere efforts of most Pentagon auditors as well as recent improvements in DCAA activities, he agency leadership ''for many years has shown itself to be far too concerned with maintaining a harmonious relationship with defense contractors and government procurement officials.''

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