- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 18, 2000

The U.S. Senate has set up a special unit to investigate whether Clinton administration political appointees have orchestrated a campaign to politicize and weaken the Army Corps of Engineers.

Senate investigators have asked the Corps to provide copies of any records that "in your view constitute inappropriate political interference by executive branch officials in the professional judgments of Army Corps of Engineers personnel," according to an April 11 letter obtained by The Washington Times.

The Corps of Engineers, a 221-year-old U.S. Army command with 34,000 employees, plays a major role in building water projects and issuing environmental impact studies for billions of dollars in construction programs. It has long been at odds with liberal environmental groups sympathetic to Vice President Al Gore's presidential candidacy.

The Times also has obtained a copy of a White House draft policy that harshly criticizes the Army Corps. The draft presidential order would place far more emphasis on a project's environmental impact as opposed to economic benefit, meaning fewer would be approved.

The investigation follows an effort by Army Secretary Louis Caldera to institute a new order giving an Army civilian official broad power to intercede in Corps environmental studies. Mr. Caldera delayed the effective date after leading Senate Republicans objected.

Mr. Caldera's spokesman did not respond yesterday to a reporter's request for comment.

The special Senate investigative team, made up of staffers from three committees, is examining whether administration officials are politicizing the Corps to meet demands of environmental groups.

The groups, such as the Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund and American Rivers, have long viewed the Corps as an archenemy and have challenged many of its projects in court.

But the Army Corps of Engineers has many Democratic and Republican friends in Congress. The Corps studies water-resource projects proposed by Congress. If the Corps recommends approval and Congress agrees, it then develops and constructs such projects as dams, flood-control channels or navigation locks.

"The Senate is trying to determine whether or not there was a concerted effort to shanghai the Corps' study process," said a Defense Department official sympathetic to the command.

The Corps maintains that it produces objective, scientific appraisals, while rejecting far more projects than it approves. It says it balances environmental safeguards and a region's economic needs.

Its advocates contend the organization is the victim of an orchestrated administration-environmentalist campaign that culminated March 30. On that date, Mr. Caldera issued an order placing strict new layers of civilian control over the Corps. His "management reform" memo requires the Corps to report all issues to the civilian Army assistant secretary for civil works.

The order said the assistant secretary, who is a political appointee, will have the power to "establish the final position" on any Corps policy decision. And it gave the assistant secretary power to directly supervise Corps employees while they perform what are designed as objective environmental impact studies.

His order came despite the fact that the Army inspector general has not completed an investigation recently launched to determine whether the Corps deliberately tilted a pending recommendation on an upper Mississippi River navigation project.

Mr. Caldera on April 6 was forced to suspend the new order after powerful Republican senators interceded with Defense Secretary William S. Cohen.

"Embodied in these reforms are changes that may threaten the interests of Congress, expressed in statute, in obtaining objective, technical reports from the chief of engineers on the merits of civil works projects," said a letter to Mr. Cohen from three Senate Republican committee chairmen.

They are Appropriations' Ted Stevens of Alaska, Armed Services' John W. Warner of Virginia, and Environment and Public Works' Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire. Staff members from these three committees are now conducting an investigation into possible political influence.

The three senators complained that Mr. Caldera never consulted with them before announcing the changes. A Defense Department source said Mr. Stevens personally asked Mr. Caldera before the announcement to delay the order but that the Army secretary refused.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, warned in an April 5 letter to Mr. Cohen that reforms could lead to "inappropriate influences" over the Army Corps.

In the April 11 letter to the Corps, Messrs. Stevens, Warner and Smith asked for "any correspondence, memos, notes, minutes, electronic mail … documenting specific events or incidents … that in your view constitute inappropriate political interference."

The Corps' Capitol Hill supporters say they are alarmed by the intense public criticism the agency has received.

They point to a speech Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, gave on the Senate floor in which he attacked the Corps' commander, Lt. Gen. Joe Ballard.

"Congress has no choice but to consider seriously moving the responsibilities of the Corps from the Army and placing them within the Department of the Interior," Mr. Daschle said. "Too much power now is concentrated in the hands of the chief of engineers [Gen. Ballard], and that power too often has been abused."

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who is sympathetic with anti-development environmental groups, also attacked the Corps in House testimony.

The White House Council on Environmental Policy has drafted a new policy that would make it more difficult for the Corps to recommend approval of water projects. And, it wants discussion on the complex new policy ended in 90 days, a time span too limited to allow adequate debate, according to officials.

The draft presidential policy, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, is titled "Enhanced Protection of Wetlands and Water Resources." It would reverse a policy adopted by President Reagan in 1983 by putting far more emphasis on a project's environmental impact and less on its economic benefits.

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