- The Washington Times - Monday, January 10, 2005

Defense officials say that the Donald H. Rumsfeld-John McCain relationship, never the closest or friendliest, really soured at a private meeting the two had last summer.

The strong-willed defense secretary and the equally hard-nosed Republican senator from Arizona, both ex-Navy pilots and hawks on Iraq, were supposed to make peace over two nagging issues.

Mr. McCain did not believe Mr. Rumsfeld was adequately paying attention to, or disclosing information about, the Boeing tanker lease scandal; Mr. Rumsfeld wanted Mr. McCain to lift his opposition to several Pentagon nominations bogged down in the Senate.

Rather than serving as a peacemaker, the meeting turned into a frank exchange of views that left both men bitter toward the other, according to two defense sources who were briefed later.

“It went very badly,” said one source. “Rumsfeld brought over McCain to schmooze him. It didn’t work.”

The sources differed on the exact wording, but they agreed that when Mr. Rumsfeld was unable to persuade the Arizona Republican to let the nominees go forward, he suggested the senator, a prisoner of war in Vietnam, was hurting the war effort.

“This is when McCain just about climbed over the table,” one source said.

A spokeswoman for the senator did not return phone messages.

The two men, who share a penchant for blunt talk, had not gotten along well before the meetings. But defense and congressional aides say the relationship worsened afterward, with the senator dug in even harder on blocking the nominees.

The Bush administration and the Pentagon are becoming increasingly concerned about avoiding a repeat of what they dub the “McCain effect” in 2005, because Mr. Rumsfeld plans this year to restock his senior offices and needs the approval of the Senate — and thus Mr. McCain.

The senator has hurt Mr. Rumsfeld’s standing in Washington by, among other things, saying in December that he had “no confidence” in Mr. Rumsfeld.

While the opposition Democrats can be expected to criticize the defense secretary over postwar planning in Iraq or detainee abuse, Mr. McCain’s words took on added weight among the Washington press corps.

Republicans privately complain that Mr. McCain positions himself as a maverick and “anti-Republican Republican” knowing that this is what liberal media outlets want to hear and report.

“His powers come from a favorable media and what projects out of that,” said John Samples, director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute. “It’s an appeal that crosses party lines in some respects. But I think his appeal is more toward moderates and Democrats. There is no evidence he has a strong Republican base appeal nationally.”

Larry Di Rita, Mr. Rumsfeld’s spokesman, said in an interview the Pentagon is determined to prevent a new logjam by providing Mr. McCain all the information it can on the Boeing negotiations.

“The secretary has declared a desire to resolve any lingering tanker issues so that does not become an obstacle to nominations,” the spokesman said.

Concerning Mr. McCain, Mr. Di Rita said “the secretary takes that relationship seriously. He knows he’s important to the country. Senator McCain is a very serious, thoughtful guy.”

“The secretary is very aware that Senator McCain is acutely focused on the operations of this department and what we are doing to clear up any remaining anxiety about this tanker lease issue. The secretary’s position from the beginning has been to get the information out,” he said.

With his cherished campaign-finance-reform law signed by President Bush, Mr. McCain found a new hot-button issue: a noncompetitive plan by the Air Force to lease refueling jets from Boeing Co. for a cost that could reach $30 billion.

The more that Mr. McCain, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, looked into the deal, the worse he said it smelled. He started demanding documents — including internal e-mails of Air Force Secretary James Roche and others — but the Pentagon initially stonewalled.

Defense sources say the White House drew up a letter in response that restricted access to Mr. McCain, who could only read the documents, not copy them or take notes.

“The letter was completely insulting to the senator,” a defense official acknowledged later.

Mr. McCain began exercising a senator’s prerogative to hold up nominees, including candidates to run the Army, and Pentagon weapons-buying.

The stalemate was the tense backdrop for the McCain-Rumsfeld meeting in late summer. Defense sources say Mr. Rumsfeld had gone on a full-court press to try to get nominees through, but had failed. They said his sometimes gruff style in talking to senators did not help.

The secretary asked Mr. McCain to let his people go. The senator wanted Mr. Rumsfeld to start taking a personal interest in the Boeing scandal and release more documents.

“If you want McCain to give you something, you have to make a trade,” said a former senior Senate staffer involved in hammering out defense budgets. “If you’re not willing to trade, he won’t budge.”

Weeks later, the Bush administration relented and began shipping Mr. McCain a string of embarrassing e-mails that showed Mr. Roche browbeating bureaucrats and working to make sure that Boeing won the deal to replace an aging fleet of tankers further stressed by the war on terror.

Darleen Druyun, the Air Force official and later Boeing executive who principally negotiated the deal, pleaded guilty in federal court to a conflict of interest and is serving a nine-month prison sentence.

Mr. McCain took to the Senate floor Nov. 19 and read e-mail excerpts and called the Boeing deal “a case of either a systemic failure in procurement oversight, willful blindness or rank corruption.”

Several defense officials now say that Mr. McCain has been correct to press the Pentagon on making more public disclosures on the Boeing deal.

A Bush administration official said last week that the basic disagreement is that Mr. McCain believes the scandal is broader than the actions of Mrs. Druyun and that culpable Pentagon officials should be fired, while the Department of Defense does not at this point.

The Boeing lease deal is dead. The Pentagon is looking at options to buy new tankers, rather than lease them, through competitive bids. The Air Force has diluted the power of Mrs. Druyun’s old office by creating more oversight.

What remains broken, for now, is the Rumsfeld-McCain relationship.

Mr. Di Rita says the Pentagon has been slow to turn over documents. He chalks it up to bureaucratic snags.

“The secretary wants to continue broader and deeper relations across the board in 2005 with Congress,” he said.

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