Thursday, July 31, 2008

Back on the Hill

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse for the Air Force…

It now appears that the officer picked to be the next USAF Chief of Staff is facing trouble on Capitol Hill.

General Norton Schwartz, nominated to be the service’s top uniformed officer, was back in front of a Senate panel Wednesday, facing more questions about his Congressional testimony in the early days of the Iraq War.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the second day of testimony was prompted by information Schwartz provided in 2003, while serving as Director of Operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

During that testimony in 2003, Schwartz was asked about Iraqi munitions. In the aftermath of the invasion, the U.S. had neglected Iraqi ammunition dumps and looters raided the sites, stealing old artillery shells and other weapons that later would be used to build roadside bombs.

When asked at the time about the munitions, Schwartz told senators and House members that he did not know the answer to their questions. However, some lawmakers believed Schwartz knew more than he acknowledged. And now, behind closed doors, senators want Schwartz to explain more fully whether he withheld answers.

At this point, most observers believe that Schwartz will still be confirmed. Still, the general reportedly faced tough questions in his second day of closed-door Senate hearings—highly unusual for a military nominee.

Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Armed Services Committee, told reporters on Tuesday that he had “secret information” about Schwartz’s 2003 testimony, and planned to raise new questions when the general appeared today.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters yesterday that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has “no questions” about Schwartz’s trustworthiness, honor and reliability.” However, the defense chief and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, made their own trip to Capitol Hill on Tuesday evening, in support of General Schwartz.

The testimony of Gates and Mullen—which also occurred in a classified-door session—was a show of support for the Air Force nominee. But their appearance suggests some concern about the nomination among DoD leaders, and a realization that Schwartz’s confirmation may not be a slam dunk.

ADDENDUM: ADDENDUM: By any reasonable standard, criticizing Schwartz for failing to anticipate the roadside bomb threat is a bit unfair. In the spring of 2003, few in the Defense Department envisioned the rise of an Iraqi insurgency, and no one predicted the emergence of IEDs as a serious threat.

But all’s fair in love, politics and the Senate confirmation process. Besides, Carl Levin can’t resist taking one last shot at a man who will (in all likelihood) be President Bush’s last nominee to the JCS.

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