With the nation poised for war with Iraq, Army Secretary Thomas E. White may be fighting for his job in the latest dispute between the Pentagon's senior civilian leaders and the heads of the armed services, defense officials said Thursday.
White previously came under fire in connection with his stint as an executive at Enron Corp. He left shortly before it declared bankruptcy, when top officials were still collecting big paychecks. He later was taken to task for the Army's Capitol Hill lobbying efforts to save its planned Crusader artillery program even after Pentagon budgeters planned to cut it.
Recently, he again irked the Pentagon's civilian leaders by refusing to challenge Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki's prediction that it could take "hundreds of thousands" of U.S. troops to keep the peace in a postwar Iraq.
A defense official close to White described the secretary as "apoplectic" Thursday after he read in a piece by syndicated columnist Robert Novak, who has ties to administration hawks, that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld wanted him out.
Through a spokesman, White immediately questioned the timing of the apparent leak.
"The secretary of the Army's unconditional view is that when the nation prepares for war, we should rally around the leaders entrusted by the Constitution to make decisions affecting the security of our beloved country," White spokesman Charles Krohn said. "There must be some who draw advantage from putting the secretary of the Army and the secretary of Defense in opposite corners of Pentagon politics."
Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke dismissed Novak's assertion that White was nearly fired last week. "The suggestion that there was some pivotal moment last week where he [White] was about to be fired is -- in a word -- nonsense," she said.
Yet while White's circumstances may be cloudy, the rift between the Office of the Secretary of Defense and branches of the armed services is real, political analysts said, in large part because of what the service chiefs regard as heavy-handed oversight by their bosses.
The posts of Navy secretary and undersecretary are vacant. And there have been reports that Air Force Secretary James Roche has complained of interference from Rumsfeld's managers. Shinseki, the Army's top military officer, has been a lame duck since Rumsfeld named his successor nearly 15 months before the general's scheduled retirement in June.
"We have a lame-duck Army chief of staff. We have an absent Navy secretary, and we have an Air Force secretary who feels he has to work very hard to be heard," said Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute, a public policy group based in Arlington, Va.
White's latest problems began March 6 when he did not join Pentagon leaders discrediting Shinseki's prediction that a large force might be needed in a postwar Iraq. Shinseki's congressional testimony sent shock waves through Congress and the Bush administration, where some feared it would alarm Muslims. Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul D. Wolfowitz, told reporters Shinseki's figures were, in Wolfowitz's words, "wildly inaccurate."
But White vouched for Shinseki's credibility and said simply that there were two different views on the subject.
"Gen. Shinseki has some experience in this, having run the stabilization in Bosnia, and he's a very experienced officer," White said. "You have two views on this right now, and expertise in support of each view."
When Shinseki again offered the figure in testimony Wednesday, White declined to differ.