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Originally published July 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 18, 2008 at 2:30 AM

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Did Air Force divert terror funds to buy posh seats?

For three years, the Air Force's top leadership sought to spend counterterrorism money on "comfort capsules" on military planes that ferry...

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — For three years, the Air Force's top leadership sought to spend counterterrorism money on "comfort capsules" on military planes that ferry senior officers and civilian leaders, with at least four top generals involved in selecting the color of the capsules' carpet and leather chairs, according to internal e-mails and budget documents.

Production of the first capsule — two sealed rooms that can fit into the fuselage of a large military aircraft — and four mobile pallets containing swiveling leather chairs with footrests has begun.

Air Force officials say the government needs the new capsules to ensure that leaders can talk, work and rest comfortably in the air. But the top brass's preoccupation with luxury in wartime has alienated lower-ranking Air Force officers, congressional staff and a nonprofit group that calls the program a waste of money.

Air Force documents spell out how each capsule is to be "aesthetically pleasing and furnished to reflect the rank of the senior leaders using the capsule," with beds, a couch, a table, a 37-inch flat-screen monitor with stereo speakers and a full-length mirror.

The effort has been slowed, however, after lawmakers balked at using counterterrorism money for the project and Air Force generals demanded changes. One request was that the color of the leather for the seats and seat belts in the mobile pallets be changed from brown to Air Force blue and that seat pockets be added. Those changes alone were estimated in a March 12 memo to cost at least $68,240.

In all, for the past three years the service has asked to divert $16.2 million to the effort from what the military calls the GWOT, or global war on terrorism. Congress has twice told the service that it cannot, including an August 2007 letter from Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., to the Pentagon ordering the money be spent on a "higher-priority" need.

Officials say the Air Force nonetheless decided last year to take $331,000 from counterterrorism funds to cover a cost overrun, partly stemming from the design changes, although a senior officer said Wednesday in response to inquiries that it will reverse that decision.

The internal Air Force e-mails, provided to The Washington Post by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a nonprofit Washington group, and independently authenticated, make clear that lower-ranking officers involved in the project have been pressured to create what one described as "world-class" accommodations exceeding the standards of a regular business-class flight.

In a letter of complaint sent Thursday to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, POGO asserted the new capsules will provide no special communications or work capabilities beyond those already available. It is "a gross misuse of millions of taxpayer dollars that could otherwise be used to train and equip soldiers," wrote Danielle Brian, the group's executive director.

The Air Force already has two trailers, known as "Silver Bullets," that can be loaded aboard large transports for use by top military and civilian officers, plus a fleet of about 100 planes specifically meant for VIP travel. But Gen. Robert McMahon, who is now the Air Force's deputy chief of staff for Logistics, Installations and Mission Support, said the new program was started because the service ferried more "senior travelers" to distant regions after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and identified a "gap" in its capability.

It initially planned to build 10 of the capsules, he said, for use by four-star generals, fleet admirals and federal officials at the level of assistant secretary and above. "It is not opulent and it is not a box," McMahon said, but meant to match the comfort level of the VIP fleet.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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