WASHINGTON - Senators lambasted the U.S. Air Force Thursday after military officials acknowledged that they had accidentally disclosed secret data to competing bidders as part of their process to award a $35 billion contract to build a new fleet of aerial refueling tankers.
“This is not the finest moment for the Air Force, and I am part of it,” said South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, an Air Force reservist colonel.
At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill called the incident “a debacle” and asked what punitive action had been taken. She said those involved in the error should no longer be employed by the government.
Arizona Republican John McCain called it “a fiasco” and part of a continuing “saga of mismanagement.”
“Thank goodness it wasn’t classified,” said Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown, who also expressed wonder that it has taken the Air Force more than a decade to award the contract. “It’s only the federal government that would take 10 years to do a contract. It just makes no sense to me.”
The hearing came only weeks before the Air Force is expected to award the contract to either Chicago-based Boeing or the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company, commonly known as EADS, the parent of the French-based aircraft maker Airbus.
In November, Air Force officials mistakenly shared analyses of each side’s bid with the other company. Military officials investigated the disclosure and decided that the bidding process could proceed.
“I would come to the conclusion that it wasn’t damaged,” Maj. Gen. Wendy Masiello told the committee.
Masiello called the data sharing it “an inadvertent disclosure of information” and said that the two employees involved in the incident had been reassigned to different jobs.
Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington requested the hearing to air the implication of the error and to assess whether it had given either company an unfair advantage.
On Wednesday, Cantwell and Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas introduced a bill that would require the Pentagon to consider any unfair advantages for either company gained through subsidies before awarding the contract. Boeing backers allege that EADS has an advantage because it receives government subsidies.
“American workers, war-fighters, and taxpayers deserve a level playing field in the tanker competition,” Cantwell said.
Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, who cosponsored the bill, said that illegal foreign subsidies “are distorting this competition and stacking the deck against American workers.”
Washington state officials are backing the Boeing bid because of its potential to bring thousands of new jobs to the state.
A decision on which company will get the contract is expected in February or March.