Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Circle the Wagons

As the Defense Department begins its latest probe into the Air Force "Thunder Vision" scandal, there are signs that the service will defend officials who may be targeted by that inquiry.

Speaking to a group of intelligence professionals, an Air Force Brigadier General said yesterday that "One of our top priorities right now is keeping General [Michael] Moseley in there, what with Thunder Vision and all." In From the Cold learned of the general's remarks from a senior Air Force civilian who was in the audience.

Moseley, who serves as the USAF Chief of Staff, was mentioned in the original DoD Inspector General (IG) report on the controversy. While General Moseley was not accused of any wrong-doing, the document detailed his personal relationship with the head of Strategic Message Services (SMS), a Pennsylvania firm that won a contract to provide audio-visual support for the USAF Thunderbirds in 2005.

The $50-million deal was cancelled in early 2006, after a rival firm filed a complaint. Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne referred the matter to the IG office. Investigators spent almost two years compiling their report, which was completed in early 2008 and released to the public last month.

According to the IG, at least five USAF officials took part in an effort to steer the contract to SMS, a firm that included a retired Air Force four-star general among its partners. The report placed much of the blame on Major General Stephen Goldfein, then-Commander of the Air Warfare Center at Nellis AFB, Nevada. In that post, Goldfein was responsible for supporting the Thunderbirds, the Air Force's renowned precision-flying team.

Defense Department investigators found that Goldfein labored tirelessly for SMS, despite the fact that the company's bid was twice that of other firms. General Goldfein and two other officers subsequently received administrative punishment from Secretary Wynne for their conduct in the investigation.

While General Moseley was not sanctioned, the report raised questions about his ties to the company during the contract process. While bids were under review in 2005, Moseley and his wife paid a "social visit" to the home of Ed Shipley, the SMS president. Mr. Shipley's partner in the venture, retired Air Force General Hal Hornburg, was also present during that visit. General Moseley told the IG that the proposed Thunderbirds contract "never came up" during his time at Shipley's home.

Other sections of the IG report detailed additional contacts between Moseley and Shipley while SMS was competing for the Thunderbirds contract. In one e-mail, General Moseley asked the SMS president to fly a friend (a retired Royal Air Force officer) in one of Shipley's vintage aircraft. Mr. Shipley owns both a P-51 Mustang and an F-86 Sabre; his aircraft have routinely participated in USAF "heritage flights," which showcase vintage warbirds and today's combat aircraft.

Results of the IG investigation prompted key members of the Senate to ask for another inquiry. In late April, Senator Carl Levin of Michigan and Arizona Senator John McCain, asked the inspector general to launch a new probe, focusing on the comments of senior Air Force officials. Earlier this week, congressional sources told In From the Cold that the new investigation was underway.

While the USAF has not responded officially to the latest Thunder Vision probe, the brigadier general's comments may offer insight into the thinking of senior officials. They suggest the service is prepared to circle the wagons around Moseley, and fight to keep him as Chief of Staff. The remarks also indicate that some senior officers view Moseley as vulnerable, and fear that the new investigation will lead to his early retirement.

General Moseley has served as the service's senior uniformed officer since September 2005; his term is scheduled to end in 2009. An early departure from the chief of staff position would be another blow for the Air Force, which has endured a series of scandals involving high-ranking officials over the past five years.

Spokesmen for the Air Force did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the matter.

The Brigadier General who suggests that keeping Moseley is a "top priority" now serves as vice commander of a major Air Force organization and is stationed outside the Washington, D.C. area. A career fighter pilot, the general has extensive operational experience and previously served as commander of wing-level units. He made the comment about General Moseley during a visit to an east-coast base.

Air Force members present for yesterday's event expressed some surprise at the general's remarks. While the Thunder Vision scandal has reverberated throughout the service, there have been few indications as to how senior officers view the controversy, and their reaction to the latest investigation.


Mike said...

Ugh. Everyone is expendable, especially the head honcho. I've got a post up here drawing a comparison between the current situation and the actions of Gen. Fogleman when he retired early. Thought it might be of interest to you.

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