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Cheney Lashes Out at Top AF Officer : Accuses General of Trying to Make MX Deal With Congress

Times Staff Writer

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, in an unambiguous signal to the military services that he is in charge at the Pentagon, Friday publicly chewed out the highest ranking Air Force officer for “free-lancing” a political compromise on strategic missile modernization on Capitol Hill.

At a press conference after his first week on the job, Cheney said that he is “not happy” with Gen. Larry D. Welch, the Air Force chief of staff, for talking to lawmakers about a possible deal on land-based ballistic missiles.

“He was not speaking for the department,” the former Wyoming congressman said with a distinct edge to his voice. “I think it’s inappropriate for a uniformed officer to be in a position where he is in fact negotiating an arrangement. I will make known to him my displeasure.”

Air Force Issues Denial

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Welch had no comment, but an Air Force statement denied that he was negotiating a missile deal with Congress.

In his first public session with reporters, Cheney displayed an impressive grasp of the issues confronting the Pentagon as well as a ready wit.

Cheney told of getting lost in the Pentagon basement last Saturday while his chauffeur waited to take him to the White House for a meeting with President Bush. He finally found the right stairway and marched smartly out toward his car.

“I sort of tightened my tie and walked out like I knew exactly where I was. . . . Nobody had the nerve to ask me where the hell I’d been,” Cheney said.

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Wearing a gray pinstriped suit and polished cowboy boots, the new defense secretary fielded questions on subjects ranging from Pentagon budget cuts to the “Star Wars” anti-missile defense plan.

Wants Well-Trained Forces

He said that his priority will be to maintain well-trained and well-equipped military forces, even if it means cutting their overall size. He said that he remains an “agnostic” on how quickly the “Star Wars” program should progress and how much should be spent on it.

Cheney succinctly summarized the arguments for and against the two competing systems proposed to modernize and add mobility to the nation’s land-based intercontinental ballistic missile force: a rail-borne version of the 10-warhead MX and the truck-mounted single-warhead Midgetman.

Congress has demanded that the Administration choose between the two systems or devise an affordable means of building both. The issue is part of a continuing review of the nation’s strategic forces, and Administration officials have not yet decided how to settle it.

“I have, as yet, made no decision with respect to the question of ICBM modernization. All of our options are open,” Cheney said. “The President has not yet made any decision on it. To say that a compromise is near, I think, would be premature.”

However, over the last two weeks, senior Air Force officials, including Welch and acting Air Force Secretary James F. McGovern, have discussed a plan with key lawmakers under which the Air Force would be allowed to deploy both missiles.

Talks Called Unauthorized

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The discussions were unauthorized, Cheney stressed Friday. Then the new defense secretary leveled a shot at Welch, a four-star general and member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for shopping his proposal around Capitol Hill. “He was obviously up there on his own hook.”

Cheney added: “Everyone is entitled to one mistake.”

Welch’s four-year term as Air Force chief of staff will expire in July, 1990. McGovern assumed the top civilian Air Force job in December and had been expected to keep the job if former Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.) were confirmed as defense secretary. Tower was rejected by the Senate two weeks ago because of questions about his drinking and ties to defense contractors.

Sources said Friday that Cheney had told McGovern earlier in the week that he will not be retained.

Response by Military

The Air Force, in a written response to Cheney’s comments, said: “Gen. Welch has made it clear in congressional testimony and in response to questions that the Air Force has no new proposals for the Congress until the secretary of defense and the President make their decision” about the missile programs.

Cheney said Friday that he had spent a majority of his time this week trying to fill senior positions in the Pentagon. He said that he has made a number of decisions that he will forward to the White House for approval next week, but he did not announce any names.

Three of Cheney’s former congressional aides will move over to the Pentagon to serve as chief spokesman, director of legislative affairs and general counsel.

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