As we wait, a new, long-form feature on KC-X in Washingtonian magazine -- "Own the Sky" -- uncovers a key mystery.
In Jim Roche's first extended interview on the scandal that led to his ouster in December 2004, the former Secretary of the Air Force reveals to senior editor Shane Harris why he fought McCain so bitterly over the controversial lease deal. Harris writes that a tearful Roche (shown pictured on USAF pistol range, right) recalled the death of his only son in May 1987 and perceived -- with apparently far-reaching implications -- betrayal in his friend McCain's heart-less reaction.
It's unclear whether McCain is aware of Roche's accusation of personal treachery, but the story may be vital to understanding how the KC-X story unfolded. There clearly have been breakdowns in the acquisition system, with the doomed lease deal and the incompetent evaluation of the competitive bidding process as exhibits A & B. But KC-X appears to have been unwittingly born into a blood-feud. It seemed mysterious that Roche, a consummate DC operator, was unable to compromise on a seemingly routine squabble over acquisition policy. Harris' feature finally helps illuminate the possible source of the Roche-McCain meltdown more than seven years ago.
That is not to say the article is perfect. In such a sweeping account of the KC-X story, however, some omissions are forgivable. The enmity between Roche and EADS North America executive Ralph Crosby is touched upon, but the back-story of their career rivalry inside Northrop is sadly absent. The KC-X scandal destroyed many careers, including some belonging to innocent bystanders. It may not be necessary to footnote an aspiring future chief of staff such as Gen Gregory "Speedy" Martin, but his fall from power over a few unfortunate responses to McCain's questions in a Senate hearing speaks to the wider tragedy of the KC-X story. Less forgivable, Harris asserts the B-2 bomber belongs to Boeing. Scheduling an interview with EADS' Crosby, who memorably served as Northrop's B-2 program manager, might have saved Harris the embarrassment.
Yesterday I interviewed Harris, author of "The Watchers" and noted intelligence community journalist, about the feature. A transcript is on the jump:
TDL: I know you've covered intelligence mostly, so what
made you want to cover this flying gas station?
HARRIS: I joined the magazine here several months ago and
one of the first conversations I had with my editor was about doing a story on
the tanker deal. We always do stories about the way Washington
works and we want to do long features on how Washington works. The inspiration for
this story was sort of Jim Fallows' piece - Uncle Sam buys an Airplane -- in The
Atlantic [Monthly] many years ago. My editor and I were both sort of familiar with the tanker deal and what an escapade it had become, and we thought if you could lay
it out from start to finish it would be a very illustrative story - not so much
about how the procurement process works but how it doesn't work. It was almost
the opposite of a 'Washington-works' story. It's sort of a 'how Washington
breaks down' story. As time went on and we reported it, it became clear it
was sort of a Washignton tragedy. It had all these figures in it who were sort
of undone -- many of them by their own hand.
TDL: Right. Well, tragedy is probably a good word for it. Comedy also comes to mind.
HARRIS: Yeah, comedy, too (laughs).
TDL: And, you know, in talking about this as like a Greek tragedy, what I got from your article especially was the personal feuding, and the personal histories of major characters in the story, like Jim Roche and John McCain. What effect do you think that personal dynamic played in how the story unfolded six or seven years ago?
HARRIS: I think it had a big effect and I did not realize
that there even was a back-story until I interviewed Roche. The way it came
about is I did about a 2.5 hours interview at his house and really toward the
end of it is when this issue came up, and as I say in the story this very
emotional moment in the interview, and
he explained why it was that he dug in his heels against McCain and refused to
yield to him on the tanker deal.
I had thought probably Roche was more
motivated by his desire to see the tanker deal go through. I never thought that
he was particularly loyal to Boeing. I never thought that he was particularly
interested in a deal with Boeing. I think he was more interested in a deal with
the tanker going through. And I thought he was doing what any air force
secretary would do and that's defend his service's interests, and, you know, run
up against the naysayers. McCain wanted to stop it and Roche wasn't going to
let that happen.
What I realized, though, the degree to which Roche felt
profoundly offended -- I think even betrayed - by McCain over what happened in
that exchange about his son having died, that just the way it poured out of
Roche with tears coming down his face and his voice was just choking up and
being physically angry over it, it was really clear to me that he held this
personal grudge all those years.
When they came together face to face again over the tanker deal - on top of all the other reasons that Roche wanted this tanker to go through -- he was not going to let John McCain beat him. And that to me was a real moment in writing about this story to think that so much of the animosity and the tension involved in this goes back to the personal grudge match between these two people. And I'm pretty sure John McCain had no idea that Roche felt this way. I think if he's reading this for the first time he'll be as surprised as anybody to learn that because no where did Roche ever reveal that during the tanker battle. So this is something of a revelation.
TDL: It's the first comments I've seen Jim Roche make about the tanker since leaving [the air force].
HARRIS: Yeah, I think that's right.
TDL: It helped me put into context the hard-line stance he took.
TDL: There's usually a compromise worked out on these things, and that was never an option.
HARRIS: No, it never was. And if you read the emails released by McCain's committee. It's very clear that when Roche was being very candid and exchanging emails with his staff they had no intention of backing down on this. Now you layer that personal context on it, it actually makes more sense. There were so many points where I think it would have been in the political interests of Roche and his colleagues to cut a deal and to try and compromise. Now, knowing this - and knowing, too, how hard-headed Darleen Druyun was, and how uninterested she was in anybody telling her what to do -- it kind of all came together and made sense after that interview with Roche - for me, anyway.
TDL: Looking back over the whole scope of this, do you think there is anything that could have been done that would have prevented this 10 year long soap opera from unfolding with still no end in sight?
HARRIS: That's a good question. I'm not sure. Because there
may have been objectively things that could have happened, but I'm not sure
with the personalities involved. So, for instance, it's possible that McCain
could have eased up and not made this contract the whipping boy for his cause
against pork spending as he saw it. But McCain harbored presidential
ambitions and others, and I don't think he was going to let that go. Roche
could have compromised, but that wasn't going to happen. And obviously one of
the things that could have kept this from coming completely off the rails as it
did was if Darleen Druyun had not been negotiating employment deals with Boeing. So there was an issue of malfeasance there.
On the second round of the competition, it's hard to say. When ... the lease deal was canceled and then Northrop Grumman and EADS were competing against Boeing, still so much of what happened in those two proposals, in terms of the mistakes the air force made and the things that they did, we still don't know why they made the mistakes. There were pretty huge mistakes that the procurement officlals evaluating that and the source selection team made and the GAO report makes that clear that there were some pretty blantant errors that you wouldn't expect professionals to be making.
When I look back at this thing honestly, it's almost like this thing is cursed. There is almost no logic to it anymore. It is a complete grudge match now. It has taken on a life of its own. It is no longer just a $40 billion contract. It is some other kind of prize now. It has ego wrapped up in it. It has politics wrapped up in it. And at this point I don't know how you turn the freight train back I guess. There's probably lots of places where this thing could have worked out differently, but I just really believe that this - I've never seen a contract that's seemed this destined to fail at every turn, and I don't know what that is other than the stakes are so high and nobody will give an inch on it.
TDL: I probably should know better than to ask a journalist this, but given all that you've seen and read and reported on, how do you see this ending now?
HARRIS: I've seen conflicting analyses on what it is the air force decision is going to come down to in the end lately. There are some people who seem to be suggesting that there's a best value competition still to be had in this. I saw an analysis recently by someone who said it will all come down to how much fuel the plane can carry. But at the same time if you look at the rules of the procurement, it seems pretty clear that whoever has the lowest price is going to win. I wouldn't bet either way. It seems to me like a pretty 50/50 chance because you know presumably Boeing has the cheaper plane, but Airbus and EADS has also signaled very clearly that they would be willing to drop their price if it meant winning. I think they're in it to win it at this point. But my guess is that whoever wins the other side will automatically review the decision with a mind towards protesting it because at this point why not? I mean, it's hard to imagine that at this point one of these companies would simply bow out and concede to the other. And everybody I talk to is bracing for that so maybe there's an element of self-fulfilling prophecy to it? But it would really surprise me if the loser of this just gracefully conceded and went away. That would surprise me. I suppose it would be good for everyone if this thing were finally put to rest and it certainly would give the air force the plane that they need a lot faster but I've always suspected there will be an 'act four' to this.