WASHINGTON – The White House and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld exonerated Army Secretary Thomas White on Tuesday in an investigation of alleged improper lobbying of Congress by members of the Army staff. But the controversy raged on.
Rumsfeld said Tuesday that someone on White's staff was "way in the dickens out of line," and that he would await the investigation's findings -- due Wednesday -- before taking action. He appeared to rule out punishing White, 58, a decorated Vietnam veteran who is the Army's top civilian official.
"I certainly have confidence in Secretary White," Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference.
President Bush's spokesman echoed that sentiment. "The president has confidence in Army Secretary White. He thinks he's doing a good job in his post," Ari Fleischer told reporters at the White House.
In a private show of support Tuesday morning, Rumsfeld sent White a newspaper that contained a front-page story indicating White was likely to be fired. Rumsfeld attached a stick-on note to White that read, "All baloney," or words to that effect, according to an official who saw it.
Rumsfeld left open the possibility of taking action against someone below White's rank.
"The task is to find out the facts," he said. "And it isn't a matter of ready, shoot, aim. It's ready, aim, fire -- and we're still in the aiming business."
The investigation is being conducted by the Army inspector general.
At issue is who in the Army initiated contacts with members of Congress to undermine Rumsfeld's push to cancel the $11 billion Crusader artillery system. The Army appeared to have been enlisting political support to defeat Rumsfeld's objective, which is to take the $9 billion in unspent Crusader money and spend it on other, more advanced technologies.
Bush put $475 million for the Crusader in his proposed 2003 defense budget, and the House Armed Services Committee added language to the budget bill last week that would prevent Rumsfeld from spending it elsewhere. The Senate Armed Services Committee is widely expected to do the same.
The Army documents offering "talking points" for saving Crusader were faxed to members of Congress shortly after White was informed by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz that Crusader would be canceled.
The documents reportedly included an assertion that without Crusader or an equivalent artillery system, soldiers in ground combat would be put at undue risk.
"I talked to the secretary, and he had no knowledge or awareness" of the documents, Rumsfeld said.
He dismissed speculation that White was about to be fired.
"There is no question but that the Army -- not the Army, but some individuals in the Army -- were way in the dickens out of line," he said. "It was not Secretary White, and he has advised me to that effect."
On Monday, officials close to both Rumsfeld and White, speaking on condition of anonymity, said White could be forced out, although White told aides he did not intend to resign.
In White's view, Crusader is indispensable to protecting soldiers in close combat. Aides said he gave no indication he intended to soften his stance. Rumsfeld appeared equally determined to kill Crusader, although he faces a tough battle in Congress.
White has declined to comment publicly.
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.
White also is under investigation by the Defense Department's inspector general for his handling of personal business matters on trips involving Army jets.