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Robert Farley
By Robert Farley July 31, 2008

Letters don't amount to intervening

An independent political group called Campaign Money Watch has begun airing a TV ad that paints Sen. John McCain as a bought-and-paid-for politician who swung a lucrative defense contract to a European company over an American competitor.

The issue is McCain's role in a highly contentious and much-publicized battle over a contract to build a fleet of air refueling tankers for the Air Force. Chicago-based Boeing has been at odds with a rival bidder, a partnership between U.S.-based Northrop Grumman and European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EADS), the parent company of Airbus.

To the surprise of many, Airbus was awarded the roughly $40-billion contract in March 2008, but the General Accounting Office upheld a protest from Boeing, concluding that the Air Force made a number of errors in the bidding process. The contract will now be re-bid.

What's interesting about this attack is that McCain's role in this particular defense project has long been seen as one of taxpayer hero. The whole reason there was a competitive bid for a contract to build the tankers is because McCain led a charge to scrap the Air Force's original plan, which was to lease jetliners from Boeing. As McCain made noise, government studies concluded that costs for the lease plan had been vastly underestimated. People were fired, some went to jail. It was a big scandal, and McCain has rightly claimed credit for it on the trail.

None of that background appears in the ad. The ad claims McCain's campaign helped steer the contract toward Airbus, thereby selling out thousands of U.S. workers.

First the ad notes that McCain has accepted contributions from Airbus executives and that former Airbus lobbyists were working on his campaign. We ruled this claim True.

Then the announcer in the ad states, "And guess what? John McCain intervened, which helped Airbus get that Pentagon contract."

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In September 2006, McCain sent two letters to Defense Department officials about factors they should or should not consider in deciding the contract. Specifically, he urged them to ignore lawsuits currently before the World Trade Organization between the United States and the European Union about government subsidies for aircraft manufacturers. Boeing claimed government subsidies gave Airbus an unfair advantage. McCain argued that to include the lawsuits as an evaluation factor would detract from the competition by adding "an element of arbitrariness and capriciousness." It would also be unprecedented, he said.

So does that amount to intervening? Did it help Airbus get the contract? And did the promise of campaign contributions influence McCain?

Keith Ashdown, of Taxpayers for Common Sense, doesn't think so.

"The word 'intervening' is not a word I would use," he said. "He was making sure there was a competition."

Besides, he said, McCain didn't have a vote on who got the contract, so he didn't have the power to steer it to either company. It wasn't his call.

"Intervening" is a subjective term. Some would say two letters arguing against subsidy disputes not being included in the bid competition constitutes intervening. But to imply those letters swung the contract in Airbus' favor overstates McCain's influence.

We rate the claim Barely True.


Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.

Our Sources

Public Campaign Action Fund, "TV Ad: the McCain File" June 9, 2008

The Hill, "Boeing blame game is played on Sen. McCain" by Roxana Tiron, March 6, 2008

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "Boeing backers blame McCain for losing deal" by Eric Rosenberg, March 7, 2008

New York Times, "U.S.-Europe Team Beats Out Boeing on Big Contract" by Leslie Wayne, March 1, 2008

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "Letter from McCain to Deputy Secretary, Department of Defense" Sept. 8, 2006

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "Letter from McCain to Deputy Secretary, Department of Defense" Sept. 18, 2006, "McCain on Airbus in Waco, Texas" March 3, 2008

Washington Post, "McCain's Role in Plane Pact Spotlights Ties to Lobbyists" by Michael D. Shear and Matthew Mosk, March 12, 2008

ABC News, "McCain Defends His Tanker Deal Inquiries" by Jim Kuhnhenn and Matthew Daly, March 11, 2008

Interview with Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense, July 16, 2008

Interview with Doug Weber of center for Responsive Politics, July 17, 2008


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