THE LOCAL NEWSPAPERS have been competing to bring us perspective on the departure of Boeing Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Phil Condit and the latest news on whether or not the company will assemble its proposed 7E7 "Dreamliner" here. But the papers have been strangely reticent about putting resources into covering the rotten core of corruption at the center of Boeing's current woes: the growing scandal over the proposed 14-year, $27 billion deal to sell and lease 767 tankers to the U.S. Air Force and, more broadly, the way Boeing has been doing business.
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In recent weeks, the tanker deal was approved by Congress and the legislation signed into law by President Bush, but the deal is on hold because of apparent misconduct on the part of Boeing, which has fired two executives: its chief financial officer, Michael Sears, and Darleen Druyun, the former Air Force acquisition official who put the deal together, then took a job at Boeing. There's good reason to believe that she was offered the position while working on the Boeing contract and that she and others might have improperly shared confidential information with Boeing.
The Boeing shake-up, which now includes Condit's departure, has triggered a Pentagon review to determine whether or not to proceed with the contractthis despite Boeing pressure to sign the contract quickly and, according to former Seattle Times aerospace reporter Bryon Acohido, now writing for USA Today, conniving with the Pentagon and some members of Congress to circumvent the spirit, if not the letter, of the compromise deal Congress passed that would have saved taxpayers some $5 billion. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the tanker deal's most vociferous critic, calls their shenanigans "Enron-esque."
TODAY, THERE'S EVEN more trouble on the horizon. The bargain that Democratic Sen. Patty Murray called one of the most investigated deals in history is about to get probed on a whole new level. This week, the Air Force asked the Pentagon's inspector general to expand his look into the tanker deal to include all contracts involving Boeing and Druyun going back to 2000. In addition, McCain is asking for a full congressional investigation. And Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John Warner, R-Va., has said he will hold new hearings on the tanker debacle. Meanwhile, the tankers, the acquisition of which amounted to a multibillion-dollar taxpayer bailout of troubled Boeing, remain on hold, and Boeing remains unbailed (though some might need bail money before it's all over).
New aspects of the lobbying and corruption surrounding the deal are shedding light on how Boeing has been doing business and, indeed, how the business-friendly Bush administration does business. On top of the scandal is London's Financial Times. In a series of stories this week, it offered an in-depth look at Boeing's lobbying efforts and how Boeing has constructed a cozy relationship with the Bush administration. The Financial Times first revealed that the notorious Richard Perle, the former Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson aide who became a Reagan administration defense official known as the "Prince of Darkness," lobbied for the tanker deal. His efforts included getting a pro-tanker-deal op-ed piece that was vetted by Boeing in advance ("fact checking," they called it) published in The Wall Street Journal while failing to disclose that Boeing made a $20 million investment pledge to his own venture company, Trireme. Neocon Perle, importantly, is not only an architect of the current war in Iraq but a member of the Pentagon's controversial Defense Policy Board. This is a group of private-sector defense bigwigs that advises Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Board members have valuable, inside access to the top levels of government, and some leverage that to feather their own nests and the nests of clients.
Earlier this year, Perle had to resign his chairmanship of the board over conflict- of-interest allegations. He's not the only policy board member with financial links to Boeing. The Financial Times reports that Boeing has a stake in a private equity fund in which former CIA director James Woolsey is a principal, and that"local- angle alert" for journalistsformer House Speaker Tom Foley, the Spokane Democrat, is a partner in a lobbying group that has received more than $600,000 for work on, among other things, the tanker deal.
THE AIRLINE BUSINESS is cyclical. So, too, is the Pentagon scandal business. Author Roger Morris, who was on the National Security Council staff during the Johnson and Nixon administrations and now lives and writes in Seattle, reminds me that the corruption in this case is "hardly original sin." Even Dwight Eisenhower famously warned us 40 years ago about the dangers of the military-industrial complex. And Gore Vidal's new book on the founding fathers, Inventing a Nation, points out that even in the beginning, Alexander Hamilton was running the countryand favoring special interestsout of the Treasury Department.
But the news value in looking closely at the Boeing tanker mess is not that it is new, but that it looks to be routine and pervasive. It's almost taken for granted by the taxpayers and the media, and encouraged by our elected officials, in this Washington and the other. What about our state's recent $3 billion bribe to Boeing on the 7E7? Can we take Boeing to task in that kind of moral climate?
Yes, because prevalent or not, and in our self-interest or not, it's still wrong.
If such exposures are cyclical, and the tanker deal indeed ushers in a new era of defense scandals, then let's take full advantage of it. It's time for some soul searching close to home. Apparently, we're long overdue.