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Row Over Pentagon Weapons Program Heats Up - 2002-05-03

The future of the U.S. Army's top civilian official appeared increasingly in doubt Friday after the Pentagon's chief spokeswoman signaled he was disloyal and out of touch with the policies of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

The dispute centers on Army Secretary Thomas White's support for a multi-billion dollar program to deploy a new heavy artillery piece called Crusader. It is a program Defense Secretary Rumsfeld wants cancelled, so the money can be used for high-tech projects more useful to counter-terrorist operations.

But when the cancellation decision was effectively made this past week, Army leaders sought to fight back, quietly enlisting the support of influential Congress members in a bid to reverse the move.

When Mr. Rumsfeld found out, he voiced displeasure and ordered an investigation of what his aides have characterized as inappropriate behavior.

Now in the strongest signal yet that Mr. White is in serious political trouble, Mr. Rumsfeld's chief spokeswoman, Victoria Clarke, has slammed those she said have failed to fall in line with the Defense Secretary's priority efforts to transform the military.

"If people have not figured out over the last seven months how important it is to move quickly to transform the military so it can really face and address and overcome the threats we are facing, then they have just been asleep," Ms. Clarke said.

Ms. Clarke went on to suggest the Army's rear-guard effort to save the Crusader reflected a callous disregard for the need to prudently spend taxpayers' dollars.

But she hinted Mr. White's biggest mistake was his evident failure to fall in line and support the Defense Secretary's policies, once the critical Crusader cancellation decision was effectively made.

"When you have got an issue in play, you argue your case, you make your case, you make it very, very forcefully, you speak up, you do everything possible to advance your part of the issue. When a decision has been reached, direction has been given, you are expected to support it," Ms. Clarke said.

Mr. White has had no comment on the controversy.

But some Army officials are hinting he may resign. Mr. White had already been under a political cloud because of his contacts as Army Secretary with the Enron Company, the now-bankrupt energy company he once worked for.