WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Dick Cheney on Monday fired Air Force Chief of Staff Michael J. Dugan, saying that the four-star general displayed "poor judgment at a very sensitive time" by revealing possible targets of air strikes in Iraq in the event of war.
President Bush and Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, concurred in the dismissal, which came in a 10-minute meeting with Dugan in Cheney's Pentagon office early Monday.
Dugan was fired for comments published in The Times and Washington Post on Sunday, in which he said that--if war comes--the U.S. military intends to conduct a massive air campaign against Iraq, specifically targeting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, his family and his palace guard.
"Given the extreme delicacy and sensitivity of the current situation, it's incumbent upon senior officials to be discreet and tactful in their public statements, and I found those qualities lacking" in Dugan's remarks, Cheney said in a news conference Monday.
The defense secretary said Dugan's comments put at risk the lives of the more than 150,000 U.S. troops in the region and jeopardized the five-week-old Persian Gulf operation by revealing classified details of U.S. war planning.
Cheney said he will nominate Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, currently commander of Pacific Air Forces, to be the next chief of staff.
As for Dugan, who had been in the post only since July, Cheney said: "He will be retired."
The only other member of the Joint Chiefs to have been fired was Adm. Louis E. Denfeld, sacked in October, 1949, by President Harry S. Truman. Denfeld, ironically, had irritated the President and his fellow chiefs for raising questions about the value of air power in modern warfare.
Cheney cited a number of critical sins that Dugan committed in the interviews with three journalists conducted over several hours aboard his aircraft on a trip to Saudi Arabia last week.
"We never talk about future operations, such as the selection of specific targets for potential air strikes. We never talk about the targeting of specific individuals who are officials of other governments. Taking such action might be a violation of the standing presidential executive order" banning assassinations, Cheney said.
He also chastised Dugan for underestimating Iraqi military capabilities, for revealing classified information about the size and disposition of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia and for demeaning the role of the other U.S. military services by citing air power as the "only option" available for defeating the 1-million-member Iraqi army.
Cheney also was disturbed with Dugan for "treating (U.S.) casualties cavalierly," an aide said. He apparently was referring to a comment from a senior Dugan aide on the trip who called the expected loss of American lives in such a military operation a "manageable risk."
Powell reportedly was furious when he saw the Post story on Sunday morning and called Cheney at home at 7 a.m. to point it out. Cheney then sought The Times' version to see if Dugan's remarks were accurately reported. The two articles were similar, and the quotations in common were exactly the same. Cheney was "very upset," but did not make up his mind to fire Dugan until Sunday night, a knowledgeable defense official said.
An aide to Cheney said the defense secretary believes Dugan's comments "showed egregious judgment" and could not be tolerated. "He became the self-appointed spokesman for (Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who is directing the U.S. operation in Saudi Arabia) and the chiefs. He revealed classified information. He talked about operational plans that are fundamentally not his choice. He raised sensitive matters of diplomacy relating to other nations. He set a poor standard of military leadership, that a military commander would not take seriously the people we're up against," this official said.
"Based on all these things, the secretary just lost confidence in him," the aide said.
Powell contacted Dugan in Florida and asked if he had been accurately quoted. Dugan assured him that he had been. Powell told him to report to Cheney's office at 8 a.m. Monday but did not tell the Air Force chief that the decision had been made to dismiss him.
Dugan did not know when he entered Cheney's Pentagon office that he was about to be fired, an Air Force official said.
In his news conference, Cheney did not dispute the truth of any of Dugan's assertions, which included a statement that the Joint Chiefs have concluded that the United States would never have sufficient ground forces in Saudi Arabia to drive Iraqi troops out of Kuwait and would therefore be dependent on air power to sway any potential battle.
Dugan also revealed for the first time that the United States has deployed 420 combat aircraft to the Arabian Peninsula--nearly as much striking power as the fleet dedicated to defending Europe against the Soviet Union. Previous estimates of air power in the Persian Gulf region were about half that.