Blood on the Rock

July 1, 1993

On April 29, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin fired three Air Force general officers and one senior civilian, effectively ending their careers, on the basis of an Inspector General’s report that had been thoroughly discredited a week earlier. The report was released officially and publicly by the IG before the Air Force or the persons accused were given an opportunity to comment.

The report cited the four individuals–Lt. Gen. Edward P. Barry Jr., Maj. Gen. Michael J. Butchko Jr., Brig. Gen. John M. Nauseef, and A. Allen Hixenbaugh–for improprieties two years ago in management of the C-17 airlifter program and urged disciplinary action. Mr. Aspin acknowledged there was no evidence of “criminal conduct.” What he could have said, but didn’t, is that there was no evidence of misconduct of any kind.

The IG case was a total bust. Nevertheless, Mr. Aspin said he had “lost confidence” in the accused, relieved General Butchko from duty, and barred all four from further work in acquisition. His announcement ignored a fifth person, Darleen Druyun, whose reputation was smeared by the report. That left her unpunished but not explicitly exonerated either.

The report weaves a hairy tale of premature progress payments to help the contractor, failure to keep senior officials informed, and intimidation of those who tried to impede the wrongdoing. The Air Force rebuttal, submitted April 21, found 206 IG statements of “fact” not supported by the documents referenced and 100 instances of opinions and subjective conclusions mixed in with the “facts.” If any of the charges in the 103-page IG report are valid, nobody has offered credible proof.

In February 1992, Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Government Operations Committee and a foe of the C-17 program, asked the Defense IG to look into cash flow to the contractor, McDonnell Douglas. It began as an “administrative inquiry,” so the inspectors did not follow strict “audit standards” in collecting evidence. Somewhere along the line, the investigation took on criminal overtones, but the looser administrative standards still applied. At one point, the IG said a witness had characterized a particular action as “a trick.” What happened was that the investigator introduced that word in an interview, then led the witness to agree to it. That is small potatoes, however, compared with the rest of it.

As a multitude of experts attest, the IG relied on assumptions-many of them incorrect-about contracting rules. The report indicts the accused for following a formal written policy established by the Defense Department in 1989. (The IG office disagrees with this policy, but had been told previously by Defense Department officials that the IG interpretation is wrong.) In another instance, according to contracting experts, the C-17 program officials would have been on dangerous legal ground had they taken the actions the IG thought proper.

The IG reported a nefarious “plan,” in effect a conspiracy to conceal problems and do evil deeds. There is no evidence that any such plan existed. Senior officials, including the under secretary of Defense for Acquisition, were kept very well informed. Furthermore, people who disagreed with the supposed conspirators were regularly filing documents called “Bellringer” reports with a clear channel to the top levels of the Pentagon. Then there is the matter of intimidation. The report is fuzzy on the specifics. Two of the presumed intimidees were not present at a meeting where the most dramatic instance supposedly happened. A third, who was there, filed a sworn statement saying he was not intimidated.

After publishing the IG report, the Defense Department allowed the Air Force and the accused eight weeks to reply. For six of those eight weeks, Deputy Inspector General Derek Vander Schaaf refused to let the Air Force make copies of testimony from some witnesses, saying he feared reprisals against them. The Air Force legal team said that “a major impediment to exhaustive study is that many of the allegations by DoD IG are simply too vague to be susceptible to meaningful legal analysis.”

Inadvertently, the review team handed Mr. Aspin the tool he eventually used. It said that while no misconduct took place, some management decisions by two of the officials were “questionable”–but that such a conclusion is apparent only with “twenty-twenty hindsight” and that the decisions made were within the range of normal management discretion. Mr. Aspin pounced on this as an excuse to fire all four.

The most plausible explanation is from a Pentagon official who says Mr. Aspin needed to put “blood on the rock” to appease Mr. Conyers and other critics in Congress. Indeed, the harsh action was applauded by some on Capitol Hill who believe the program is managed badly and that anyone making decisions about the C-17 two years ago must be guilty of something.

If the people dismissed did anything wrong, it was not established by the innuendo-laden IG report. Nor has it been established by additional evidence brought forth since. Mr. Aspin says the General Counsel will now develop procedures to ensure that the IG deals fairly with persons who are the subject of such reports in the future. For at least four individuals, that correction comes a little late.