WASHINGTON — Senators from both parties lambasted the U.S. Air Force on Thursday after military officials acknowledged that they'd accidentally disclosed secret data to competing bidders as part of their effort to award a $35 billion contract to build a new fleet of aerial refueling tankers.
At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., called the incident "a debacle" and asked what punitive action had been taken. She said those involved in the error should be fired.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called it "a fiasco" and part of an ongoing "saga of mismanagement."
"Thank goodness it wasn't classified," said Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., 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."
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"This is not the finest moment for the Air Force, and I am part of it," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a colonel in the Air Force Reserve.
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 Co., commonly known as EADS, the parent of the aircraft maker Airbus.
In November, Air Force officials shared analyses of each side's bid with the other company. Military officials investigated the disclosure and decided that the bidding process could proceed. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., where officials have backed the Boeing bid because they expect it to mean thousands of new jobs there, requested the hearing to air the disclosure and assess whether it had given either company an unfair advantage.
On Wednesday, Cantwell and Sen. Jerry Moran, R- Kan., 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. Boeing has large manufacturing facilities in Washington state, Kansas, Missouri and another plant slated to open this year in South Carolina.