UPDATE: The House Armed Services airland subcommittee will hold a July 10 hearing at 2 p.m. in Rayburn 2118 on the tanker contract at which John Young, undersecetary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, Sue Payton, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, and a representative from the Government Accountability Office will testify. ALSO, see below for information about a closed meeting today with House lawmakers, a GAO rep and one from the Pentagon.
That enormous sucking sound you heard at the Pentagon Thursday was the intake of breath by the senior OSD and acquisition officials who handled the tanker contract when they heard Defense Secretary Robert Gates offer almost no defense of the contracting process that led to the Northrop Grumman contract.
Gates was asked Thursday point blank if he had confidence in Sue Payton, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, who led the team that decided to award the contract. "I have confidence in the team until I find evidence to the contrary," Gates said. Given the recent forced resignations of Air Force Secretary Mike Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mike Moseley, Payton must be getting ready to move out if asked since Gates also said the Government Accountability Office's report found that the "Air Force team made significant errors." At the same time, Gates did say he "needs to get a better feel for the nature of criticisms" made by the congressional watchdog and had not made any decisions about the contract yet, adding that the "first indication" he had of trouble with the contract award was the GAO report.
The Defense Secretary has made clear he will be closely watching the decision whether to rebid the deal or not, signaling that he realizes the political sensitivity of the deal, as well as raising questions about his confidence in the handling of the issue by the office of John Young, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.
"We clearly need to have an approach that has the confidence of the Congress so we are looking at several options," Gates said. Asked if he would personally get involved in the decision, Gates said he did not think that would be "appropriate, frankly."
UPDATE: In other tanker action today, the House Armed Services airland subcommittee met behind closed doors for more than three hours with a representative from the GAO and a fairly low-ranking Pentagon acquisition official to discuss the tanker deal. No one but lawmakers were allowed to attend. We hear that even Northrop Grumman supporters conceded that the GAO report has devastated their case. For those at the Pentagon who would like to relegate the GAO report to the usual trash can they get put in the building, our source said there was unanimity among lawmakers at the meeting that the GAO had done a fine job in its report and had the ear of members. UPDATE ENDS
Asked if he believed the Pentagon's acquisition process is broken, Gates said there are problems but that his team is "taking steps to improve the contracting process." But he acknowledged that fixing the system will remain an agenda item for the next administration.