WASHINGTON – An investigation into allegations that Army Gen. Tommy Franks allowed his wife to attend classified briefings won't affect Franks' ability to lead a U.S.-led war against Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday.
Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference that Franks had his "complete confidence and the complete confidence" of President Bush.
"There isn't a chance in the world that it will have any possible interference with his role as the combatant commander in the Central Command," Rumsfeld said, in answer to a question. "Tom Franks is doing a superb job for this country, and we are lucky to have him there. He is a man of great talent and skill."
The Defense Department declined to give details of the investigation. But officials speaking on condition of anonymity said the inspector general has been looking into allegations that Franks allowed his wife, Cathy, to attend classified briefings, gave her a military bodyguard she was not entitled to and may not have properly reimbursed the government for all of her travel when she accompanied him on official trips.
Rumsfeld downplayed the investigation, saying charges against senior offices are not uncommon. He said the probe is about three-fourths finished.
The charges were not expected to derail Franks' career, and it was unclear what, if any, disciplinary action might follow, if they proved true.
Rumsfeld's comments Tuesday echoed a statement he issued late Monday praising Franks' performance as a soldier and commander and pointing out his importance to the war on terror and any upcoming campaign. Critics said the statement was inappropriate, coming in the midst of the investigation and from the man who ultimately will decide if action is to be taken against Franks.
"It's completely inappropriate," Charles Gittins, an attorney who frequently represents military clients, said of Rumsfeld's statement.
Rumsfeld rejected the suggestion by a reporter that it was a conflict of interest, saying the statement was meant to be a counterbalance after someone unfairly leaked word of the allegations to the press.
As for the charge Mrs. Franks attended briefings involving classified material, Gittins said, it's unlikely secrets were compromised. "But for a general officer -- he knows better," Gittins said of Franks.
"It's unheard of," said Eugene Fidell, a Washington expert on military issues. "Nobody thinks Mrs. Franks conveyed information to ... an unfriendly government, she's not on the telephone with al-Qaida. But it's the integrity of the system, and the appearance of it is certainly disturbing because a spouse doesn't have any business" at such meetings.
Franks issued a brief statement saying he was cooperating with the probe.
"It would not be appropriate to comment on the investigation until it is complete," the statement said.
The charges were made by a subordinate, and two senior members of the Central Command staff declined to act on the complaints before they eventually were taken to the inspector general, according to The Washington Post, which first reported the investigation on Tuesday.
Cautioning against drawing any conclusions from the charges, one Pentagon official said it may be that Mrs. Franks was assigned a bodyguard on the basis of some intelligence that indicated a possible threat to the family.
Fidell said others have had their careers destroyed for lesser offenses, but also noted that Franks is a valued figure.
"It's a time when we don't need to be executing skilled generals, skilled commanders," he said. "But many people who have been penalized, reprimanded, or otherwise ... because they lost a page in a classified publication, for example, will be watching this with interest and possibly" some malicious pleasure.
The 57-year-old Texas native is highly decorated from his service, including in Vietnam and the 1991 Persian Gulf War, with five bronze stars, three purple hearts and two distinguished service awards.
Mrs. Franks told the Tampa Tribune in November that her husband "felt it was important for me to travel with him and for people he meets -- always the leaders of their countries -- to see an American family."
A former high school teacher, Mrs. Franks is a board member of the Military Child Education Coalition, which works to minimize the disruption suffered by children of servicemembers as they move every two or three years to their parents' new assignments.