- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2001

Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, reversed policy last night and said his soldiers will not wear any of about 618,000 black berets being made in a low-wage factory in communist China.

Faced with mounting criticism from Congress, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said he was directing the military to reclaim issued berets from the troops.

"The Army chief of staff has determined the U.S. troops shall not wear berets made in China or berets made with Chinese content," Mr. Wolfowitz said in a statement last night. "Therefore, I direct the Army and the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) to take appropriate action to recall previously distributed berets and dispose of the stock."

In another move yesterday, the Pentagon acknowledged to The Washington Times that it had canceled contracts with three other companies for more than 1.5 million foreign-made black berets due to poor workmanship and tardy deliveries.

A DLA spokeswoman said yesterday that the three contracts canceled on Monday were for berets from Romania, South Africa and India. She said the deals were terminated due to late deliveries and substandard work.

Mr. Wolfowitz´s one-sentence statement did not say why the Pentagon was rejecting the $4 million worth of Chinese-made berets after receiving about half of the order from the plant four months ago.

But the Army and Pentagon had been under intense criticism in Congress — and faced ridicule in the media — for having part of the Army uniform made in a country that has threatened the United States with military strikes, has held hostage the crew of a downed U.S. reconnaissance plane, and could one day be fighting with American troops over Taiwan.

The Army also released a statement last night saying Gen. Shinseki intends to continue his policy, announced in October, of issuing a black beret to virtually every soldier and will try to meet his June 14 deadline.

Mr. Wolfowitz said the soldiers would not wear berets with "Chinese content." This means the DLA may also have to dispose of all 240,000 berets made in Sri Lanka since they contain Chinese leather.

Adding to the anger over the beret buy is the fact the Pentagon waived a "buy American" law and contracted for most of 4.7 million berets with companies operating Third World factories.

The no-Chinese-beret decision came on the eve of testimony today by Gen. Shinseki and top Pentagon officials before the House Small Business Committee.

A House Armed Services Committee report obtained by The Times charged that the Pentagon sidestepped a key provision of the law it must meet before awarding clothing contracts to overseas plants.

The Army´s desire to have soldiers making the symbolic uniform change by June 14, the service´s birthday, forced the DLA to waive the "buy American" law.

In a House floor speech before Gen. Shinseki´s order last night, Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr., North Carolina Republican and House Armed Services Committee member, called on the Army to terminate the entire beret program.

"The bottom line is that we have troops without adequate ammunition and pilots who can´t fly because of a lack of funds, so why in the world would the Army spend $23 million to change the color of a hat on the whim of one general?" said Mr. Jones.

"The decision regarding the change from folding green hats to black berets appears to be dying a slow death," Mr. Jones added. "The time to bring an end to this ill-fated decision has come."

Besides the "buy American" issue, the Army caught flak from special operations soldiers for giving the Rangers´ exclusive black beret to nearly every soldier. Gen. Shinseki eventually compromised by authorizing Rangers to wear tan berets, after President Bush told Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to review the matter.

Sen. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican, said yesterday he has won a commitment from the Pentagon that future beret replacements will be U.S.-made.

"They have to replenish the supplies of berets repeatedly as they go forward and they´re saying they are going to establish a network of small business-based providers who will be offered opportunities to make replacements," said Craig Orfield, Mr. Bond´s spokesman.

Mr. Orfield said the agreement was reached in a meeting between staffers for the Senate Small Business Committee, which Mr. Bond heads, and two senior officials: Lt. Gen. Henry T. Glisson, the DLA´s director, and David Oliver, acting undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.

The spokesman also said the two agreed that future waivers of the federal "Berry Amendment," which requires American military uniforms to be made in the United States, will need the undersecretary´s approval.

"Waiving the Berry Amendment is a sensitive issue that is not routine," Mr. Bond said. "It is a decision to be made by senior officials who answer to the Congress. It should not be delegated to lower-level staff not fully versed in the broader implications of such a step."

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