- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2001

The Pentagon abruptly canceled a press conference yesterday at which an official planned to offer justification for the military's purchase of millions of U.S. Army black berets from Third World countries, including communist China.
Officials said the announcement was put off to avoid the awkwardness of appearing to condone made-in-China berets while Beijing holds 24 American servicemen and women as hostages.
China has refused U.S. demands to release the 21 men and three women who were aboard the Navy EP-3E aircraft. The surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter collided, forcing the EP-3E to land Sunday on Hainan Island.
Two officials told The Washington Times that a Pentagon review found that the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) acted "properly" in bypassing a federal "buy America" law to meet the Army's rush demand for berets.
The sources said that Allen Beckett, acting undersecretary of defense for logistics and materiel readiness, outlined the review's conclusion in a March 23 letter to the DLA.
The Pentagon inquiry was supervised by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz after President Bush ordered a review of the Army's decision to outfit all soldiers in the black berets traditionally worn only by Rangers.
The Pentagon had wanted to make the announcement prior to officials testifying today at a scheduled hearing before the House Small Business Committee. The committee last night decided to cancel that hearing as well, said a congressional source, who said it was done at the request of the White House. The committee has been examining why the Pentagon bypassed federal law and purchased the berets overseas. It was slated to hear from Gen. Eric Shinseki, Army chief of staff, and Lt. Gen. Henry Glisson, Defense Logistics Agency director.
China-made uniform components are offensive to some active-duty personnel as well as members of Congress. They view the regime as a future military adversary with a poor record on human rights.
More than 75 House members signed a letter to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld protesting the foreign purchase of berets. Other legislators, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi sent letters complaining of the decision to take the black beret from elite Army Rangers and giving it to every Army soldier.
Under the 60-year-old Berry Amendment military uniforms must be made of 100 percent American components and produced in American factories, subject to waiver in an emergency.
The pressing "emergency" in this case was that Gen. Shinseki set a deadline of June 14, the Army's birthday, for almost every soldier to wear a black beret. He announced the new policy in October, saying the black beret would symbolize the Army's transformation to a lighter, more agile force for the 21st century.
The logistics agency, the purchasing arm for the military services, concluded it could not meet the June 14 deadline without awarding contracts to foreign companies that operate Third World factories. Only one U.S. company produces berets to Army specifications.
The China plant, operated by a British company, is due to produce 618,000 berets. Of those, 244,000 have been delivered and distributed to Army National Guard and Reserve soldiers. Another 100,000 are in shipment. The plant is due to deliver the last beret by May 30.
In all, the Army plans to buy nearly 4 million berets for $35 million.
U.S. apparel makers are upset over the foreign contracts, saying they could have put forth competitive bids if the Army did not set such an "arbitrary" deadline.
Special operations soldiers and ex-Army Rangers strongly protested Gen. Shinseki's decision. They complained that the universal beret policy destroyed the uniqueness of blacks berets worn for decades by the Rangers, a small special operations unit known for daring behind-the-lines action in battle.
The opposition became so intense that the president asked Mr. Rumsfeld to review the decision. Mr. Rumsfeld then appointed Mr. Wolfowitz to conduct the review.
One aspect of the dispute was settled last month. Mr. Wolfowitz and Gen. Shinseki appeared at a joint Pentagon press conference to announce that the Rangers would switch from black to tan berets, thereby keeping a unique uniform designation. Airborne and Special Forces soldiers will still wear their maroon and green berets respectively.

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