Webb Gets More Tangled

Yesterday, I reported Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) is holding four nominees to the Department of Defense because he wants the government to pay travel expenses for both his wife and child on a government funded trip to Southeast Asia.

Subsequently, Kimberly Hunter, Sen. Webb’s Press Secretary, emailed me, writing:

Senator Webb has placed a hold on four civilian DOD nominations until the Department of Defense provides a full response to a letter the Senator wrote to Secretary of Defense Gates nearly six weeks ago regarding the activities of Blackwater Worldwide.
During a telephone conversation about this letter, Senator Webb and Secretary Gates also discussed travel policies relating to dependants of military officials and defense department civilian officials.  In his reply to Senator Webb’s original letter, Secretary Gates provided Senator Webb additional information on that topic.  Senator Webb will certainly have additional questions about those policies, but they were not a part of his original letter and did not affect his decision to place a hold on the four civilian nominations.

. . . .

Regrettably, the Secretary of Defense did not answer these questions in his response.  Rather, he stated that he was asking the Department of the Navy to brief Senator Webb on “the details of this particular contract with Blackwater Lodge,” and indicated that he was asking his staff “to review the broader policies we discussed.”  In other words, Secretary Gates declined to provide readily available information that would have clarified the matter.

I appreciate Ms. Hunter’s response and forwarded to my original sources on the Hill as well as several individuals off the Hill.  Ms. Hunter notes that “travel policies relating to dependents” were discussed and that “Senator Webb will have additional information on that topic.”  Additional sources coming forward to me, however, suggest that the hold is related to the family travel issue and that Sen. Webb “strongly hinted” at that in his conversation with Secretary Gates.

Ms. Hunter noted that Sen. Webb worked in the Pentagon for five years.  As such, multiple Executive Branch sources who saw Ms. Hunter’s response to me, as well as Secretary Gates’s original letter, said that Senator Webb should have picked up, either in Secretary Gates’s letter or their phone call, that Secretary Gates has been more than willing to give Senator Webb a detailed briefing on the matter.  In fact, in Secretary Gates’s letter, he wrote, “I have asked the Department of the Navy to brief you on this particular contract with Blackwater Lodge.”

Interestingly, individuals in the Executive Branch were not willing to discuss, on or off the record, Sen.Webb’s holds until they saw his press secretary’s response.  On background, I was told there has never been a hold placed on any nominee for any comparable reason, especially when the Secretary of Defense is willing to provide written responses and to send over Navy officials so that Sen. Webb can be briefed and pose questions to the experts. 

Both sources on and off the Hill familiar with the situation strongly maintain that the hold is directly related to the Pentagon’s refusal to pay for Sen. Webb’s wife and child’s travel.  Sen. Webb has now been told “no” twice.

Said one source, “Ms. Hunter is right and wrong.  Secretary Gates did not provide detailed answers to the senator’s questions.  Rather, he offered to send over someone who had knowledge of the program and could more readily answer both the questions posed and the questions raised by the answers.  It was not a matter of declining, but a matter of trying to help Sen. Webb get a thorough understanding of the matter beyond what could be done in a letter.  Sen. Webb just didn’t like the answer to his travel question.”