Air Force's Top Leadership Resigning
Washington Post
By Ann Scott Tyson and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 5, 2008; 5:37 PM

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today announced the resignations of two top Air Force officials because of what he said were serious leadership problems involving the security of U.S. nuclear weapons and components.

Gates told reporters that he has accepted the resignations of Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and the service's chief of staff, Gen. Michael Moseley, following an investigation that criticized the Air Force over two security breaches. He said he would recommend replacements for both officials to President Bush shortly.

Meanwhile, he said, former defense secretary James Schlesinger will head a high-level task force to find ways to "ensure that the highest levels of accountability and control are maintained in the stewardship of nuclear weapons."

The departure of Wynne and Moseley caps a disastrous period for the Air Force, one that has included a bomber wing inadvertently flying nuclear warheads over the continental United States, the mistaken and long-unnoticed transfer of secret nuclear-related materials to Taiwan, and a corrupt $50 million contract for an Air Force air show that went to a company owned by a retired four-star general and a civilian friend of senior Air Force leaders.

A recently completed classified Pentagon report on the Air Force problems handling nuclear weapons, which Gates reviewed, was the main event precipitating the resignations, a senior Pentagon official said.

In announcing what amounted to the firing of the two officials, Gates said the mistaken shipment to Taiwan "represents a significant failure to ensure the security of sensitive military components." He added that, "more troubling, it depicts a pattern of poor performance that was highlighted to us following last year's incident involving the improper [transfer] of nuclear weapons between Minot Air Force Base and Barksdale Air Force Base."

Not only did top officials fall short in those specific cases, Gates said, but "they failed to recognize systemic problems, to address those problems, or, where beyond their authority to act, to call the attention of superiors to those problems."

Both the domestic nuclear weapons transfer incident and the "misshipment" to Taiwan "have a common origin: the gradual erosion of nuclear standards and a lack of effective oversight by Air Force leadership," Gates said. He said a "substantial number" of Air Force generals and colonels also have been identified as "potentially subject to disciplinary measures, ranging from removal from command to letters of reprimand."

Gates said told the a news briefing: "It is my responsibility to ensure that the Air Force is on the right path to correcting the systematic and institutional nuclear weapons stewardship problems that have been identified."

In a resignation letter to Gates, Wynne wrote, "I have read with regret the recent report concerning the control of nuclear-related assets." He added, "I have to live up to the same standards I expect from my Airmen."

Moseley was called back to Washington this morning to meet with Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Later in the day, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England flew to a meeting of senior Air Force leaders in Ohio to meet with Wynne, the Pentagon official said.

The past year has also seen intense friction between the Air Force and senior Pentagon officials over matters ranging from the Air Force's role in the Iraq war to the service's preference for new, expensive F-22 fighter jets. The dispute over funding for the jets raised ire within the Bush administration because the Air Force lobbied for more jets than the White House was willing to officially request. Senior officials were also irked by a recent Air Force publicity campaign -- called "Above All" -- that appeared to pit the service against the other armed services.

Officials familiar with the problems said the last straw was an internal audit's findings regarding the nation's nuclear inventory, an inventory that has been seriously compromised in recent months. That nuclear warheads went missing and flew from North Dakota to Louisiana and that secret nuclear nose cone fuses were sent from a warehouse in Utah to Taiwan were viewed as major breaches.

Senior Air Force officials had also seen slipping credibility on Capitol Hill, where members of Congress have been challenging major acquisition programs such as a new tanker deal that has raised questions and the pursuit of advanced fighter jets. The recent revelations about inappropriate influence and command involvement in the Thunderbirds' air show contract brought specific concerns to bear publicly.

In several stern letters in April, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, wrote to Gates and Wynne that she did not understand why senior Air Force leaders were not held accountable for the contracting problems, and she urged punishment. She singled out Moseley for his personal involvement in the contracting scandal and urged at least a reprimand for him; Moseley has said in interviews that in hindsight his closeness to contract bidders could be viewed as inappropriate but also defended such relationships as critical to developing new ideas for the services.

McCaskill, who has been outspoken on government contracting improprieties, yesterday praised Gates for taking action, saying she is "encouraged" that the secretary gets "personally involved in instances in which leaders fail to grasp their level of responsibility and be good stewards of American taxpayer dollars and the care of our service men and women."

"The behavior and conduct of Gen. Moseley offended all sensibilities regardless of his seniority," McCaskill said. "What is refreshing, and what I demanded, is that we finally hold those who are senior accountable as we do for the subordinate ranks. As we do that, we send a clear message that such conduct is unacceptable and that those who take part in it cannot escape corrective action."

In their resignation statements, Wynne and Moseley both said they loved the opportunity to work at senior levels of the Air Force but that it is time for both of them to move on.

"Recent events have highlighted a loss of focus on certain critical matters within the Air Force," Moseley said in the letter, later explaining that he believes it is the honorable thing to step aside. "As the Air Force's senior uniformed leader, I take full responsibility for events which have hurt the Air Force's reputation or raised a question of every Airman's commitment to our core values."

Military analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, who has close ties to the Air Force, said he could sense a major leadership shift coming because Air Force leaders have felt increasingly estranged from senior policymakers at the Pentagon and the tension became palpable.

"The proximate cause of the forced resignations was stewardship of nuclear weapons, but the rift between the Air Force and Secretary Gates' inner circle covered many more issues, from the way the Air Force provided intelligence to troops in Iraq to the way it selected its weapons priorities," Thompson said.

Wynne's forced resignation is the second time in Gates's short tenure that he has removed a service secretary who served under former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Gates last year asked for the resignation of former Army Secretary Francis Harvey in the wake of the scandal over outpatient treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Moseley's departure also means that four of the six members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- the top advisers to the president on matters of the military -- will have left the Pentagon in less than a year.

Former chairman Marine Gen. Peter Pace was not renominated after a two-year term because Gates feared a major confrontation in Congress over the Iraq war; Pace's vice chief, Navy Adm. Edmund Giambastiani retired; Army Gen. Peter Schoomaker retired; and now Moseley has been removed.

Staff writer William Branigin contributed to this report.

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