- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 5, 2000

Army Secretary Louis Caldera is reviving his effort to shake up the Army Corps of Engineers by sending written justification to key lawmakers while attacking the Army organization.

Mr. Caldera's bid to rein in the Corps was stopped cold last spring by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, and other leading senators, who suspect an attempt to politicize the agency.

They complained Mr. Caldera failed to consult with them on his plan to give the assistant secretary, a political appointee, the final say in deciding whether the Corps approved huge flood-control and navigation projects nationwide.

In a new letter to Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican, and other legislators, Mr. Caldera accused his own Army Corps of conducting end runs around his aides.

"The Corps headquarters has distributed important policy and programming guidance documents to Corps field officers … without sharing them with the [assistant Army secretary for public works]," says an Aug. 31 Army staff paper attached to Mr. Caldera's letter. A copy was obtained by The Washington Times.

Seeking to smooth over hard feelings, Mr. Caldera told lawmakers, "I regret the fact that the Army did not undertake a more comprehensive process of consultation with the congressional committees of jurisdiction and interested members of Congress."

Corps allies on Capitol Hill, however, view Mr. Caldera's action as part of a concerted effort by the White House and liberal environmental groups to politically interfere in the organization's environmental studies.

As an example, they point to the fact that Army civilians earlier this year ordered the Corps not to release its decision to recommend maintaining dams on Washington's Snake River a major environmental issue in the Northwest. Environmental groups that support Vice President Al Gore for president want the dams removed.

Those same groups have made the Army Corps enemy No. 1 for approving water projects they oppose. Some want the White House to shift the Corps from the Army to the Interior Department, effectively neutralizing what independence it enjoys today.

In his letter to lawmakers, Mr. Caldera said, "It is my hope that we will be able to move forward with the management clarifications at some point that most members would agree are based on solid legal and policy foundation consistent with the enduring principles of our Constitution."

A Senate aide said if lawmakers continue to object, Mr. Caldera will likely activate his plan once Congress recesses for the fall elections.

The battle for control of the Army Corps has ramifications for nearly every part of the country. Local communities look to the Corps to solve devastating flood problems. Environmental groups want virtually no new water projects approved. The agency has many friends in Congress since it is the Corps that recommends whether local projects should go forward, judging environmental impact against economic benefits.

Mr. Caldera's position paper complained that the Corps' commanding general is not required by Army regulations to report to the assistant secretary.

"This uncertainty has resulted in information in some instances either not being communicated or being communicated to the wrong officials," the document says.

It also accuses the Corps of keeping critical information from Mr. Caldera. "As a result, the secretariat was uninformed and could not respond quickly when a controversial and high profile initiative under this program created congressional and public concerns," it says.

An Army employee, who asked not to be named and is a Corps supporter, disputed the charge.

"That is a foolish assertion because the Corps to my knowledge has never blatantly refused to furnish information necessary for the secretary or assistant secretary to perform their functions," said the official.

No spokesman for Mr. Stevens was available for comment on Friday, his office said. Mr. Stevens was among senators who set up a special Senate task force to investigate whether the Clinton administration is trying to politicize the Corps' decision-making.

Mr. Lott, in an April 5 letter to Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, said Mr. Caldera's reforms could lead to "inappropriate influences" over the Corps.

Relations between the Corps of Engineers, a 221-year-old institution with 34,000 employees, and Clinton appointees deteriorated over the years.

The split was perhaps best personified by a series of messages between Lt. Gen. Joe Ballard, the now-retired Corps commander, and Joseph Westphal, the assistant secretary for public works. Mr. Westphal's post would gain more power under Mr. Caldera's plan.

Gen. Ballard accused Mr. Westphal of "bumbling" through a North Dakota flood-control project.

Wrote Gen. Ballard, "I sent this very same plan to you more than two weeks ago… . To be very honest Joe, I doubt whether you even saw it. You are never in your office! I did not mention to Army Secretary Caldera during my update to him that we had given you a plan weeks ago and was waiting your response. Maybe I should have because now you want to make an issue out of it. Get real."

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