The continuing security problem in Iraq could add to the mounting troubles surrounding the president's nomination of Air Force Secretary James Roche to fill the Army's top civilian leadership slot, according to defense and congressional officials.
Not only will Roche have to answer questions about his handling of an Air Force plan to lease Boeing 767 airliners for use as aerial refueling tankers and the U.S. Air Force Academy's sexual assault scandal, they said, but the rising cost of the Iraq mission in Army lives and morale is bound to draw the attention of senators concerned with the service's extended commitment there.
"Roche is having a really bad stretch," one Defense Department official told CongressDaily. "Even if he gets past the accountability issues with Boeing and the [Air Force] Academy, he won't get in without a lot of questions about Iraq and the impact it will have on the Army."
The duration of the U.S. commitment in post-conflict Iraq remains unknown, but Pentagon officials said that troops who rotate out of the region after year-long tours there may need to be redeployed to the region to continue reconstruction activities, a likelihood that could decimate the Army of mid-career soldiers who represent the service's next generation of leadership.
"People are going to bail out like crazy," said the official. "And that will be a legitimate issue for the Senate in dealing with Roche's nomination."
Lawmakers already are questioning Roche's handling of disturbing reports of sexual assaults and a lack of discipline and accountability by the command structure at the Air Force Academy. In a Sept. 5 letter to White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez, Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner, R-Va., said he expects the Pentagon inspector general to examine Roche's handling of those issues. Warner also raised the possibility of holding Roche's nomination until the Pentagon completes the investigation, which was sought by Warner and Sens. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., earlier this year.
"As chairman of the committee, I now have to make a judgment about whether the committee can go forward, as requested by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and proceed with the advice and consent hearing on Dr. Roche's nomination to be secretary of the Army" at a time when Roche's actions are under review by the executive branch, Warner wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by CongressDaily.
Roche's nomination could be jeopardized further if the Pentagon releases a series of e-mail exchanges and other internal communications between Roche and Boeing Co. executives regarding the Air Force's controversial plan to lease 100 Boeing 767 commercial jets for use as military refueling tankers. The documents were requested by Armed Services member John McCain, R-Ariz., in a Sept. 5 letter to Rumsfeld. As chairman of the Commerce Committee, McCain has already disclosed hundreds of similar communications among senior Boeing personnel that shed new light on the company's relentless lobbying effort to secure the multibillion dollar government lease, and raise questions about the integrity of Air Force acquisition practices associated with the deal.