Leahy and staff had central role in F-35 basing decision


Sen. Leahy meets generals

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., second from right, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., right, speak with  Gen. Craig McKinley, left, and Gen. Michael Dubie on March 3, 2011. Photo by Tech. Sgt. John Orrell/U.S. Air Force

Rough Landing is a special series and podcast on the debate over basing F-35 fighter jets in Burlington. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

In December 2012, more than 100 Vermonters gathered outside U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy’s Burlington office to voice their displeasure over his support for a plan to base a squadron of F-35 fighter jets at Burlington International Airport.

While many of the activists in attendance generally agreed with the senior senator’s political philosophy and that of his two fellow Vermont congressional colleagues, they found themselves at odds on the F-35 issue. One woman’s sign read: “Leahy, Sanders, Welch, You’re Breaking My Heart.”

According to a Seven Days report, protesters entered Leahy’s office and demanded the Democratic lawmaker hold a public hearing on the F-35. Leahy’s chief of staff, John Tracy, appeared on the senator’s behalf and dismissed calls for a forum.

Jimmy Leas, a South Burlington attorney long opposed to the planes, pointed out to Tracy that "so far, (Leahy) has only made himself available to speak with supporters of the plane."

"I don't want to get into a debate with you," Tracy replied.

"This is the problem," Leas retorted.

Tracy made no concessions to the activists, telling them it was the U.S. Air Force, not Leahy, who would make the final basing decision.

A year later, the Air Force selected Burlington to be the first Guard base to receive the F-35. And while Leahy had publicly pledged not to influence the outcome, behind the scenes he had been a central participant in the selection process since at least February 2010.

According to internal Air Force documents, Leahy staffers also played a substantial role in the F-35 basing process. They coordinated with military leaders over a media message, conducted post-mortems after public meetings and — according to a Boston Globe report — pushed to “fudge” the numbers during the government’s environmental analysis of Burlington as a potential base. Meanwhile, neither Leahy nor any other member of Vermont’s congressional delegation held a public forum to discuss their views on the basing, despite sustained attempts by activists.

In an interview, Leahy scoffed at the idea that he had avoided a discussion of the basing issue.

“I see hundreds and hundreds of people around the state every year, probably thousands,” Leahy said. “I think I’ve had only two people come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got to talk to you about this F-35.’”

Leahy has long touted his seniority in the Senate as a vehicle for obtaining special perks for Vermont and access to more federal money. But he denies having played an outsize role in the Burlington basing process, which has been opposed by many in Chittenden County.

John Tracy F35

Sen. Patrick Leahy's chief of staff, John Tracy, addresses F-35 protesters in December 2012. From video by Michele Palardy/Stop the F-35

Leahy told VTDigger on Monday that he did not work to influence the basing process in Burlington, and further contended that no member of Congress could sway such a decision if they tried.

“I wish I had that kind of power,” Leahy said.

Later in the interview, when presented with information suggesting he and his staff had pushed for the basing, the senator said he “probably” worked to get the fighter jets to Burlington, but only by promoting the excellence of the Vermont Air National Guard.

“If I was advocating, I was doing what everybody else was doing,” Leahy said, adding that other senators have pressed for similar decisions in the past. “I don’t think a senator from a state of 600,000 people is going to be able to tell the Air Force what to do.”

A review of government documents, however, shows his efforts to tilt the basing decision to the Vermont Guard clearly frustrated career military officials whose assessments generally favored other prospective sites. In one 2012 email, an Air Force official vented that “military judgment and politics may override” the facts as stated. A few months later, another official complained that information had been “tailored to predispose the decision.”

A Pentagon official who was involved in the entire basing process, who asked not to be named out of concern for possible retribution inside the military, said: “The Air Force was forced into the Burlington decision” by Leahy. Furthermore, he said “the data going into the model was flawed from the beginning.”

F-16 replica

A miniature replica F-16 fighter jet in front of the Vermont Air National Guard's squadron operations facility. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

The official said Leahy staffers “were very tight with the operational folks at Burlington” and that “they intentionally got involved with making sure the operational data and inputs were as least severe as possible.”

Specifically, this official said, projections for the number of annual flights was “minimized on purpose to reduce the extent of the 65 decibel noise average,” the level above which the federal government considers “unsuitable for residential use.”

With Burlington poised to be, for a time, the only guard station in America with the F-35, the official estimated that pilots from around the country would be clamoring to get inside the cockpits and fly, resulting in more flights than projected. He also said that pilots generally prefer real flight time over simulation, which would further boost the number of flight operations in Burlington.

The official also estimated that the “number of takeoffs with afterburners are going to be greater than estimated because of the shorter runway.” (Burlington’s runway, which is slightly longer than 8,000 feet, barely qualified to host the F-35.)

By potentially underestimating afterburner use and flight operations, the official said the Air Force had “absolutely no doubt that the noise will be louder” than estimated.

“The Air Force has an attitude that ‘once we are in, we can do whatever we need to do and who’s going to try to stop us?,’” the official said.

Green Mountain Boys/Air Guard

The Vermont Air National Guard's squadron operations facility faces the Burlington International Airport runway. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

In June 2013, a few months before the official decision on Burlington was issued, Leahy staffers reached out to the Air Force with concerns over a news story reporting that 65 percent of public comments from Burlington were opposed to the basing.

According to Air Force records, Leahy’s office “felt the Air Force should have characterized some of the public comments differently, which would reflect more community support.” Specifically, Leahy’s office contended that a petition in favor of the basing should have broken out all of the signatories as supportive comments.

That September, Leahy had a phone conversation with Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force’s chief of staff, in which he said that only a vocal minority of Vermonters opposed the basing.

In that conversation, Leahy also heaped praise on the Vermont Air National Guard, telling Welsh “they are doing a great job and are the most loyal, patriotic people in the world. You would be so proud of them and they would not disappoint you if they got the F-35.”

A few weeks after the call — on the afternoon of Nov. 4, 2013 — Welsh gathered a core group of advisers in a Pentagon conference room to finalize the Burlington basing decision.

Mark Welsh

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh in 2012

Tensions ran high, according to interviews and internal notes from the meeting. Welsh was exasperated by the muted public basing support coming from the Vermont congressional delegation, and he told his colleagues that he was “tired” of the Air Force taking “all the heat.”

In comparing the potential basing locations, one Air Force official said that Burlington was expected to see the greatest increase in community noise exposure of any site in the running. She also acknowledged that the Air Force would do some things differently if given the chance to assess Burlington again, noting “not every error could be caught.”

Military officials were anticipating a lawsuit from F-35 opponents alleging major flaws in the basing process. Most in the room thought they had a good chance of winning, but one official mused that an Air Force victory in court would be dependent on a tampered-with scoring sheet remaining private. (The sheet, which incorrectly prioritized Burlington, was later obtained by the New York Times and reviewed by VTDigger.)

On Nov. 19, Leahy and Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning held a hurriedly scheduled phone call. Internal documents show that the discussion concerned the impending “Record of Decision” for the F-35.

The potential fallout from the upcoming decision worried a number of career officials, including Maj. George Nichols, who was a congressional liaison for the Air Force and believed that various Air Force offices were “not in agreement on the way forward.”

“Either way this decision goes down, this is going to be bad,” Nichols said in a Nov. 19 email. “Litigation or Congressional scrutiny, each have their own pros/cons,” he said. “The Secretary has been briefed now three times on the issues, and I firmly believe he knows exactly what he wants/needs to say today to Sen. Leahy.”

Leahy said in the interview that he did not recall details of the conversation with Fanning.

“I’d have to go back and look at the records of that, because I talk with the Air Force all the time on both their appropriations bills and other things,” he said.

Two weeks after Leahy’s call with Fanning, on Dec. 3, 2013, the Air Force announced that Burlington would become the first Air National Guard base to receive the F-35. In a joint statement, Vermont’s congressional delegation called the decision “a tribute to the Vermont Air National Guard, which is the finest in the nation.”

While Leahy has been the chief backer of the F-35 basing within the delegation, independent Sen. Bernie Sanders and Democratic Rep. Peter Welch have supported from the sidelines and helped to deflect any public criticism.

That basing will be brought before Burlington voters in a non-binding Town Meeting Day resolution Tuesday. If approved, the City Council would be called upon to oppose the noisy fighter jet and request a quieter replacement.

Vermont’s three members of Congress have received generous donations from the four major contractors working on the F-35: Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems and United Technologies.

Leahy has taken the lion’s share of cash, pulling in at least $93,850 from the four contractors over the course of his career, according to a VTDigger analysis of data from the Center For Responsive Politics. Sanders was second with $85,437, while Welch’s haul was at least $30,200.

The Pentagon official saw no evidence that Welch or Sanders exhibited any undue influence. In fact, the official said, Sanders actually may have helped anti-basing forces when he released a Burlington score sheet to the public that showed Vermont was an ill-advised choice for the F-35.

All three members of the state’s delegation initially turned down interview requests from VTDigger and declined to respond to detailed written questions, instead submitting a joint statement. Leahy eventually agreed to a telephone interview and his staff provided written answers.

Their joint statement largely echoed previous public pronouncements.

“The Air Force has made it clear that the F-35 is its future — and after a lengthy assessment, it selected Vermont's Guard to be part of that future,” the statement read. “The Air Force's decision has been upheld after several reviews, and construction at Burlington's airport and other preparations and planning are all well underway. If the F-35s don't come to Vermont, they will be somewhere else.”

Leahy is arguably Vermont’s most influential politician and one of the Democratic Party’s leading architects on military policy. He is co-chair of the Senate National Guard caucus, and has long served in a senior role on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. Leahy’s fierce advocacy for the Guard — plus, perhaps, his Irish lineage — has earned him the nickname “Saint Patrick” among many of the Green Mountain Boys.

The Senate’s most senior member, Leahy has used his powerful perch on the Appropriations Committee to call for parity in defense and non-defense spending and has generally been critical of the F-35’s significant cost overruns and development delays.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, Rep. Peter Welch, and Sen. Bernie Sanders at a Statehouse ceremony in December. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Sen. Patrick Leahy, Rep. Peter Welch, and Sen. Bernie Sanders at a Statehouse ceremony in December. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

However, he also has helped secure billions of dollars in F-35 development money for General Electric, a multinational corporation with operations in Vermont that has provided the senator with more than $72,000 in campaign contributions over his career.

GE Aviation, which has a plant in Rutland, was given a federal contract in the mid-2000s to develop an F-35 engine, as was another defense contractor, Pratt & Whitney. In 2011, the Pentagon ended the contract with GE, saying the investment wasn’t worthwhile, and that development of an alternate engine would cost the taxpayers $3 billion. The nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense also came out against funding for the GE engine, though the Government Accountability Office said a competitive engine bidding process could save money.

Leahy blasted the decision, and has fought for years to salvage support for GE’s jet engine program. In June 2016, the Department of Defense reopened the door to GE Aviation with a $1 billion F-35 engine contract that essentially revitalized the controversial program.

Leahy lauded the F-35 development money, one of the many federal contracts he has helped secure for GE and other defense contractors with ties to Vermont.

In 2012, an anonymous letter sent to an opponent of Burlington’s F-35 basing alleged that Leahy had leveraged his considerable power over military budgets and policy in the Senate to secure the F-35 basing.

The letter was postmarked from Alexandria, Virginia — near the Pentagon — and alleged a “quid pro quo deal” in which Leahy lobbied for the promotion of Lt. Gen. Craig McKinley to four-star general, a move that requires Senate confirmation, in exchange for sending 18 F-35s to Burlington.

In 2008, years before the Air Force considered Burlington as a base for the F-35, Leahy did successfully push for McKinley to the position of four-star general, making him the first National Guard officer to reach that rank.

In late 2011, Leahy further bolstered the Guard by elevating McKinley to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The push to add a fifth seat to the important military body was a controversial move, with Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, testifying to Congress, “There is no compelling military need for this change.” Leahy’s argument was that the Guard should be elevated because of the expanded role it had taken on overseas following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

David Carle, a Leahy spokesman, said the Air Force was actually “upset” by the elevation of McKinley and the Guard to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and therefore it could not have influenced the basing decision. Yet McKinley, a retired Air Force general, coordinated extensively with the Air Force in his job, as the Air National Guard is technically a component of the Air Force. After McKinley retired, he served as president of the Air Force Association.

In his written response to questions submitted by VTDigger, Carle derided the notion that Leahy had exerted undue influence on the base-selection process.

“The Air Force was in charge of their decision,” said the Leahy aide. “Individual airmen regularly express frustration, especially when decisions go differently than they would like.”

He added: “There are more than half a million military personnel in the Air Force and over 140,000 civilians. There will always be those in such a large organization who differ with any decision.”

Read Part 1, Part 2Part 3 and Part 4 of our special series on the F-35 debate, and hear more in our Rough Landing podcast.

Reporting contributed by Felippe Rodrigues.

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Jasper Craven

About Jasper

Jasper Craven is a freelance reporter for VTDigger.

A Vermont native, he first discovered his love for journalism at the Caledonian Record. He double-majored in print journalism and political science at Boston University, and worked in the Boston Globe’s Metro and Investigative units. While at the Globe he collaborated on Shadow Campus, a three-part investigative series focused on greed and mismanagement in Boston’s off-campus student housing market. The series was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize.
He also spent two years at MuckRock, a news site dedicated to investigation and analysis of government documents. 

Craven covered Vermont’s U.S. congressional delegation for the Times Argus in the summer of 2014, and worked as a Metro reporter for the Chicago Tribune before joining the staff of VTDigger from 2015-2017.

Email: [email protected]

Follow Jasper on Twitter @Jasper_Craven

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