TRANSCRIPT: Own the Sky author on the tragedy of KC-X

The nine-year (and counting) KC-X tanker contract saga is rich with emotional moments. I can think of several in a blink: receiving Darleen Druyun’s shocking letter of confession to criminal conflict of interest, hearing Sen John McCain rip the US Air Force on the Senate floor before Thanksgiving weekend in 2004, and watching the Pentagon announce Northrop Grumman’s victory on Leap Day in February 2008. Today should have added to that list. The original date for the third attempted contract award was November 12, but the evaluation process has been extended to at least December and perhaps beyond.

As we wait, a new, long-form feature on KC-X in Washingtonian magazine — “Own the Sky” — uncovers a key mystery.

Roche gun.jpgIn 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 whatmade you want to cover this flying gas station?

HARRIS: I joined the magazine here several months ago andone of the first conversations I had with my editor was about doing a story onthe tanker deal. We always do stories about the way Washingtonworks and we want to do long features on how Washington works. The inspiration forthis story was sort of Jim Fallows’ piece – Uncle Sam buys an Airplane — in TheAtlantic [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 layit out from start to finish it would be a very illustrative story – not so muchabout how the procurement process works but how it doesn’t work. It was almostthe opposite of a ‘Washington-works’ story. It’s sort of a ‘how Washingtonbreaks down’ story. As time went on and we reported it, it became clear itwas sort of a Washignton tragedy. It had all these figures in it who were sortof undone — many of them by their own hand.

TDL: Right. Well, tragedy is probably a good word forit. Comedy also comes to mind.


HARRIS: Yeah, comedy, too (laughs).


TDL: And, you know, in talking about this as like aGreek tragedy, what I got from your article especially was the personalfeuding, and the personal histories of major characters in the story, like JimRoche and John McCain. What effect do you think that personal dynamic played inhow the story unfolded six or seven years ago?


HARRIS: I think it had a big effect and I did not realizethat there even was a back-story until I interviewed Roche. The way it cameabout is I did about a 2.5 hours interview at his house and really toward theend of it is when this issue came up, and as I say in the story this veryemotional moment in the interview, andhe explained why it was that he dug in his heels against McCain and refused toyield to him on the tanker deal.

I had thought probably Roche was moremotivated by his desire to see the tanker deal go through. I never thought thathe was particularly loyal to Boeing. I never thought that he was particularlyinterested in a deal with Boeing. I think he was more interested in a deal withthe tanker going through. And I thought he was doing what any air forcesecretary would do and that’s defend his service’s interests, and, you know, runup against the naysayers. McCain wanted to stop it and Roche wasn’t going tolet that happen.

What I realized, though, the degree to which Roche feltprofoundly offended — I think even betrayed – by McCain over what happened inthat exchange about his son having died, that just the way it poured out ofRoche with tears coming down his face and his voice was just choking up andbeing physically angry over it, it was really clear to me that he held thispersonal grudge all those years.

When they came together face to face againover the tanker deal – on top of all the other reasons that Roche wanted thistanker to go through — he was not going to let John McCain beat him. And that tome 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 grudgematch between these two people. And I’m pretty sure John McCain had no ideathat Roche felt this way. I think if he’s reading this for the first time he’llbe as surprised as anybody to learn that because no where did Roche ever revealthat during the tanker battle. So this is something of a revelation.


TDL: It’s the first comments I’ve seen Jim Roche makeabout the tanker since leaving [the air force].


HARRIS: Yeah, I think that’s right.


TDL: It helped me put into context the hard-line stancehe took.




TDL: There’s usually a compromise worked out on thesethings, and that was never an option.


HARRIS: No, it never was. And if you read the emailsreleased by McCain’s committee. It’s very clear that when Roche was being verycandid and exchanging emails with his staff they had no intention of backingdown on this. Now you layer that personal context on it, it actually makes moresense. 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 andcompromise. Now, knowing this – and knowing, too, how hard-headed DarleenDruyun 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 youthink there is anything that could have been done that would have preventedthis 10 year long soap opera from unfolding with still no end in sight?


HARRIS: That’s a good question. I’m not sure. Because theremay have been objectively things that could have happened, but I’m not surewith the personalities involved. So, for instance, it’s possible that McCaincould have eased up and not made this contract the whipping boy for his causeagainst pork spending as he saw it. But McCain harbored presidentialambitions and others, and I don’t think he was going to let that go. Rochecould have compromised, but that wasn’t going to happen. And obviously one ofthe things that could have kept this from coming completely off the rails as itdid 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 thecompetition, it’s hard to say. When … the lease deal wascanceled and then Northrop Grumman and EADS were competing against Boeing,still so much of what happened in those two proposals, in terms of the mistakesthe air force made and the things that they did, we still don’t know why theymade the mistakes. There were pretty huge mistakes that the procurementofficlals evaluating that and the source selection team made and the GAOreport makes that clear that there were some pretty blantant errors that youwouldn’t expect professionals to be making.


When I look back at this thing honestly, it’s almost likethis thing is cursed. There is almost no logic to it anymore. It is a completegrudge match now. It has taken on a life of its own. It is no longer just a $40billion contract. It is some other kind of prize now. It has ego wrapped up init. It has politics wrapped up in it. And at this point I don’t know how youturn the freight train back I guess. There’s probably lots of places where thisthing 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 willgive an inch on it.


TDL: I probably should know better than to ask ajournalist this, but given all that you’ve seen and read and reported on, howdo you see this ending now?


HARRIS: I’ve seen conflicting analyses on what it is the airforce decision is going to come down to in the end lately. There are somepeople who seem to be suggesting that there’s a best value competition still to behad in this. I saw an analysis recently by someone who said it will all comedown to how much fuel the plane can carry. But at the same time if you look atthe rules of the procurement, it seems pretty clear that whoever has the lowestprice is going to win. I wouldn’t bet either way. It seems to me like a pretty50/50 chance because you know presumably Boeing has the cheaper plane, butAirbus and EADS has also signaled very clearly that they would be willing todrop their price if it meant winning. I think they’re in it to win it at thispoint. But my guess is that whoever wins the other side will automaticallyreview the decision with a mind towards protesting it because at this point whynot? I mean, it’s hard to imagine that at this point one of these companieswould simply bow out and concede to the other. And everybody I talk to isbracing 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 concededand went away. That would surprise me. I suppose it would be good for everyoneif this thing were finally put to rest and it certainly would give the airforce the plane that they need a lot faster but I’ve always suspected there willbe an ‘act four’ to this.


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6 Responses to TRANSCRIPT: Own the Sky author on the tragedy of KC-X

  1. Matt 12 November, 2010 at 11:49 pm #

    Thanks for the link to Own the Sky. A great recap.

  2. Tim D-T 15 November, 2010 at 3:55 am #

    Split buy, please!

  3. Motorcycle Jacket 16 November, 2010 at 9:06 pm #

    I love the expression. Everyone needs to express there own opinion and feel free to hear others. Keep it up :)

  4. Anonymous 17 November, 2010 at 1:46 am #

    This article was great if you can get past this blaring error, “But Northrop wasn’t known for building airplanes. Its talent was in putting complex electronics systems inside other companies’ airplanes. That’s what it had done with Boeing on the B-2 stealth bomber…”


  5. DensityDuck 17 November, 2010 at 11:29 pm #

    Interesting to hear that the whole thing came down to “McCain vs Stevens” and “Roche vs McCain”.

    The tanker deal has had impacts on every single contract let for the past fifteen years. Many promising programs and technologies have died on the vine while the USAF desperately tried to figure out how to not make them be another tanker deal. Hundreds of billions of dollars went down the drain in procurement reforms, ethics studies, endless series of re-bids and re-competes. And it’s all because these three asswipes just couldn’t play nice.

    Thank Christ McCain didn’t get elected.

  6. asdf 22 November, 2010 at 7:00 pm #

    Thank Christ McCain didn’t get elected.

    hmm why?

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