Boeing Co. has aggressively sought help from the White House and Air Force to try to win congressional approval for a multibillion-dollar leasing program for 100 refueling tanker planes, according to internal company documents made public Saturday.

The documents include company e-mails and other communications dating back to 2001 and were released by the Senate Commerce Committee, whose chairman, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is a staunch critic of the military’s plan.

McCain contends the lease is a sweetheart deal for Chicago-based Boeing, which has been hurt by plunging commercial aircraft sales.

The Air Force has acknowledged the leasing deal would cost more than buying the planes outright. But it argues that leasing would speed replacement of aging air tankers and keep money available in the short run to buy other military equipment.

An Air Force spokesman, Maj. Michael Shavers said Saturday he had not seen the documents and declined to comment on them. Calls to Boeing were not immediately returned.

The internal company memos show a flurry of meetings with Air Force officials and suggest a powerful ally in the White House – chief of staff Andrew Card.

One e-mail reads: “Andy Card needs a ‘new’ figure on tanker price … to take to the president in order to close this deal.”

Another e-mail, this one also from Boeing’s Andrew Ellis, said Card saw the deal as much bigger than proposed, comprising 200 tankers. Ellis serves as a vice president based in Washington.

Other e-mails suggest questions about the need for new tankers.

In an e-mail dated Sept. 18, 2002, a Boeing executive writes that the Air Force is “desperately looking for the rationale for why the USAF should pursue the 767 Tanker NOW.”

Cost appeared to be a concern, too. An e-mail from Ellis on April 1, 2002, said Air Force official Darleen Druyun told Boeing officials several times that the price from the maker of Airbus – European Aeronautical Defense and Space Co. – was $5 million to $17 million cheaper than Boeing’s 767. Druyun now works for Boeing in Washington.

The House Armed Services Committee and the House and Senate Appropriations committees have already approved the leasing plan. It has not come to a vote yet in the Senate Armed Services Committee.

McCain’s panel will hold hearings Wednesday on the lease proposal, and the company e-mails no doubt will be debated.

The Air Force has calculated that leasing the 100 refuelers would cost $17.2 billion, compared with $17.1 billion to buy the planes.

Other estimates put the price much higher. Last week, the Congressional Budget Office said leasing the tanker planes could cost as much as $5.7 billion more than directly purchasing the aircraft.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who counts many Boeing employees among her constituents, said the Air Force needs to begin replacing its aging KC-135 tanker fleet.

“Most of these planes now are older than the pilots flying them,” said Cantwell. “At the end of the day, when all of the information has been combed through, key decision makers will still believe the 767 tanker lease is the way to get the job done.”

Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based watchdog group, opposes the leasing option and says the new information shows Boeing’s behind-the-scenes influence is clear.

“This whole thing has a Wizard of Oz feel to it. The curtain has been lifted behind the real power brokers in Washington,” said Keith Ashdown, vice president of the group.


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© 2003 The Associated Press