WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's No. 2 man said Wednesday that he is confident the Bush administration will prevail in its battle with Congress over the Crusader weapons system because the Pentagon can put the money for the $11 billion artillery program to better use.
"The analysis increasingly said to us it's a good system ... but it's the wrong place to put the money," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told a forum at the National Press Club.
Crusader is a mobile howitzer cannon that would fire as many as 10 to 12 155 mm shells per minute to a range of more than 25 miles, creating a metal storm. Wolfowitz said he preferred to look into programs like satellite-guided artillery shells and guided rocket systems.
The Crusader would have rolled off the assembly line in 2008, but Rumsfeld ordered cancellation of the program last week.
The decision angered a number of members of Congress whose districts stand to lose defense contracting dollars and jobs as a result.
On Wednesday, one Republican lawmaker whose district was abruptly affected by the decision showed his displeasure with Rumsfeld's decision by delivering a rare, personal snub to the commander-in-chief, President Bush.
Bush was attending a meeting of the House Republican Conference, deemed mandatory for conference members, but the man who would normally gavel the meeting to order, Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, the conference chair, boycotted the meeting as a direct, deliberate and intentional snub to the president.
As the meeting unfolded, letters from Watts and Sen. James Inhofe, also of Oklahoma, went out to fellow lawmakers and to Rumsfeld complaining about the decision and the alleged lack of consultation with Congress that preceded its announcement.
The letter read, "We regret that Secretary Wolfowitz assured Mr. Watts that this course of action was not imminent barely a week before your formal announcement May 8. Mr. Secretary, we do not question your right to alter the president's budget submission. However, we write to express our gravest concern about the possibility of your office issuing a near-term 'stop work' order against the Crusader... [and] strongly urge you to allow the legislative process to unfold before any precipitous direction is taken."
Asked whether Watts' lack of attendance at the meeting was a deliberate slight on the president, House Majority Leader Dick Armey responded that it is possible Watts had "more important things to do."
Also unhappy are some Army officers who still believe in the weapon. Several of them learned about the defense secretary's intent to cancel the program hours before from a defense contractor. At the time, Army Secretary Thomas White was pleading with Wolfowitz to save the program, and remained a supporter of it until the announcement was made formal on May 8.
Wolfowitz, who has not announced an immediate stoppage of the program, said that military supporters of the Crusader are not motivated solely by jobs or politics, they actually believe in the weapon, but the decision wasn't made with winners and losers in mind.
"It's important to stress we make a recommendation to Congress. It's Congress who decides. I do believe this is a win-win decision for the Defense Department, for the Army, for the Congress. The process is always messy," he said.
The House Armed Services Committee has already voted in defiance of Rumsfeld to continue funding the Crusader. The Senate Armed Services Committee has tentatively done likewise, pending a hearing on the matter Thursday, in which Rumsfeld is scheduled to testify.