WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has sharply limited the information he is willing to let Congress see on a controversial defense contract that is the focus of multiple investigations.
Rumsfeld took a hard line even with fellow Republicans who want information from him about a proposed $23 billion deal for the Air Force to buy and lease 100 Boeing 767 aerial refueling tankers. Rumsfeld's refusal to give senators all the materials they requested could provoke a rare congressional subpoena.
Senators, led by John McCain, R-Ariz., have been demanding that the Air Force hand over internal e-mails and other communications on negotiations with Boeing and efforts to slide the deal through Congress. Critics contend that the deal was laden with conflicts of interest and that the planes may not be needed.
In a letter to Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Rumsfeld said Warner's committee would get only a sharply limited release of internal Air Force e-mails and documents.
McCain said Rumsfeld's response would "eviscerate the responsibility of Congress to provide oversight in such matters."
"There is not one single element in that letter which is acceptable to me," he said.
The e-mails and other materials concern a proposed lease of 100 Boeing 767 aerial refueling tankers for some $30 billion. After criticism, the deal was changed to a lease of 20 tankers and purchase of 80 for $23 billion.
Recently Warner voiced criticism of the deal and said there was "a united front" of committee members demanding an end to Air Force and Department of Defense stalling on producing the documents.
Rumsfeld gave his answer in a letter dated May 26, which was released on Thursday at the request of Knight Ridder. He said the Pentagon would provide only e-mails and documents "that do not reflect internal deliberative matters."
Senators would have a window of 30 hours over five days to view the documents at a Pentagon facility and would be barred from copying them or taking notes. After the review period the documents could be seen only by appointment.
Rumsfeld told the committee he would let its members see e-mails that were reports of communications with members of Congress or references to them. The members' names and any identifying information on them would be deleted, the letter said.
But senators would not get access to some information that is at the heart of the investigation.
Rumsfeld wrote that e-mails and documents that would not be made available to senators included communications with the White House and the Office of Management and Budget, discussions with Rumsfeld or Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, discussions with Defense Department lawyers and communications that touch on projected budget options.
Rumsfeld's letter said these categories "reflect sensitive internal deliberations within the Department and the Executive Branch and, accordingly, they would neither be released nor made available for review."
The Boeing deal, which for a time looked like it was heading for a fast passage through Congress, descended into scandal when it was revealed that the Air Force's chief negotiator with Boeing on the deal, Darleen Druyun, also had negotiated a vice president's job for herself with the aircraft manufacturer. Druyun last month pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy charges, and a grand jury in northern Virginia is investigating.
Rumsfeld put a hold on the tanker lease-purchase deal while the Pentagon's inspector general and other agencies and boards looked into various parts of the deal, including whether there was any urgent need to replace the Air Force's aging fleet of KC135 tankers.
The Defense Science Board found that Air Force complaints that the old tankers had serious and insurmountable corrosion problems were unfounded. The inspector general auditors could find no reason why the Air Force should lease the Boeing tankers at a cost billions of dollars higher than buying them.
© 2004 KR Washington Bureau and wire service sources