WASHINGTON – Thomas White's future as the Army's civilian chief appeared in doubt Friday amid allegations the service tried to undermine Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's decision to pull the plug on an $11 billion weapon program.
Rumsfeld's spokeswoman, Victoria Clarke, said the Army's internal watchdog is investigating. She did not mention White or say his job was in jeopardy but pointedly declined to give him a full endorsement.
When asked whether Rumsfeld remained confident in White, Clarke replied, "He has full confidence that they will get to the bottom of this."
"Those who are responsible for inappropriate behavior ... will be held accountable," she added.
Clarke declined to discuss details of the investigation but said it may produce findings within days.
Rumsfeld told reporters Thursday he was disturbed by reports that Army officials had gone behind his back to Congress in hopes that politics would overpower policy and save the Crusader program, which is developing an advanced artillery system to replace the Cold War-era Paladin artillery gun.
"I have a minimum of high regard for that kind of behavior," Rumsfeld said.
White was publicly silent Friday. Army spokesmen said he would not comment until the probe was finished.
Officials said Rumsfeld discussed the matter with White on Thursday. They agreed the Army inspector general should investigate.
For weeks White has been under political pressure as a result of contacts with Enron Corp. officials during the company's collapse last year. White had headed Enron Energy Services, a subsidiary, before he became Army secretary. White is a retired general and a decorated Vietnam veteran.
Clarke repeatedly indicated that Rumsfeld felt the Army's actions had undermined his efforts to weed out politically popular programs that do not contribute to a transformation of the military.
She said Rumsfeld's deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, had made clear to White that the Crusader was going to be canceled. She said Wolfowitz told White to produce a plan within 30 days that would terminate Crusader and invest its portion of the defense budget in other military technologies.
"Some time after" Wolfowitz did that, Army officials sent faxes and "talking points" to congressional offices that did not support Rumsfeld's decision to kill Crusader, she said.
"When a decision has been reached, people are expected to support it," she added, referring to Army leaders.
President Bush's proposed 2003 budget called for spending $475 million on Crusader. Clarke said Rumsfeld came to the conclusion that the money would be better spent on more advanced technologies.
"It has become apparent that proceeding with the funding for the Crusader could delay, stall, prevent the funding of a lot of promising technologies that could really benefit a lot more than just the Army," she said.
The Crusader is a 155mm self-propelled howitzer that has undergone initial tests of its firing capabilities and is scheduled to enter service in 2008.
For Army leaders, the fight over Crusader is vitally important to their plan for transforming the land forces for 21st century conflicts. They believe it is needed to protect soldiers in ground combat situations where airborne artillery, such as the Air Force AC-130 gunship, is not available or is insufficient.
For Rumsfeld, the Crusader is a test case for his broader campaign to accelerate the military's investment in more futuristic arms technologies. It also tests his ability to persuade Congress to part with a defense program that has strong support from members whose states stand to benefit from completing the program.
One of the most vocal supporters, for example, is Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla. The contractor that is developing Crusader, United Defense Industries, has promised that some Crusader manufacturing work will be done in Elgin, Okla., near Fort Sill, home of the Army's field artillery forces.
United Defense Industries is headed by Frank Carlucci, who was a defense secretary under President Reagan.