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How Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan May Have Promoted Boeing Over Competitors


The acting head of the Defense Department is now under investigation by the department's internal watchdog. Before Patrick Shanahan became - came to the Pentagon, he spent three decades at Boeing, working his way up to become a senior executive. Now he is accused of promoting Boeing even as he assumed leadership of the Pentagon.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now with the details of the investigation. Hey, Tom.


CHANG: So what exactly is the Defense Department's inspector general looking at here?

BOWMAN: Well, what they're investigating is whether Shanahan used his position to boost or prod the Pentagon to buy the F-15X aircraft which is made by Boeing. He also sharply criticized another aircraft made by a Boeing competitor, Lockheed Martin. And a call for this investigation, Ailsa, came from a watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Now, Shanahan was asked by reporters back in January whether he was biased toward Boeing in his official capacity. Here's what he said.


PATRICK SHANAHAN: I am biased towards performance. I am biased towards giving the taxpayer their money's worth. And the F-35 unequivocally, I can say, has a lot of opportunity for more performance.

CHANG: But Shanahan's not the only one who's been criticizing the F-35, right? So why is he the one getting investigated here?

BOWMAN: Well, you're right. Pretty much every adult in Washington has criticized the F-35. It's way overpriced. It has many design problem. It's seen as not reliable, vulnerable to cyberattacks. The problem for Shanahan is anonymous sources say he was prodding the Pentagon to buy the F-15X, again, made by Boeing. The Air Force interestingly did not include that plane in its budget.

The Pentagon now wants to buy as many as 80 of these aircraft over the coming years and fewer of the F-35s. So critics are pointing to Shanahan for all of this. But Ailsa, Pentagon officials I talk with say the decision to buy these Boeing F-15s was not made by Shanahan but by the Pentagon's Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office and then Secretary Jim Mattis. And recently, the Pentagon top officer, General Joe Dunford, told Congress the decision was made because the F-15 is less expensive than the F-35 and cheaper to operate over time.

CHANG: Now, Boeing of course has come under scrutiny for its 737 Max. That's a commercial airliner. What's the scope of Boeing's work for the military?

BOWMAN: Nearly half of Boeing's business is with the Pentagon. And just in September, it signed contracts worth about $14 billion. It produces everything from an Air Force trainer jet to Air Force One, the president's plane - also helicopters, aerial tankers, missiles, satellites, a lot of hardware.

CHANG: A whole slew of things. Now, has Shanahan responded to any of these allegation?

BOWMAN: You know, he has. Shanahan's spokesman has denied all this and said Shanahan is abiding by an ethics agreement he signed when he came to the Pentagon in 2017 which says he has to recuse himself on anything dealing with Boeing. Shanahan said at a Senate hearing just last week he would support an investigation, and the inspector general launched that investigation yesterday.

CHANG: Now, Shanahan has been the acting defense secretary ever since the last confirmed secretary, Jim Mattis, left in December. Presumably Shanahan wants the job, but what are his chances of that happening, getting confirmed?

BOWMAN: Well, here's the thing. There was an expectation Shanahan was going to be nominated last week when the president visited the Pentagon. That did not happen of course. Others have turned down the job, including Senator Lindsey Graham, retired Army General Jack Keane. Another name that has come up is Army Secretary Mark Esper. Now I'm told the president is getting used to Shanahan. But the question is obvious. Will this investigation delay the nomination, and will the White House just look for someone else?

CHANG: Yeah. That's NPR's Tom Bowman. Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.