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U.S. Cancels Beret Order Explanation

Military: Move involving China-made gear is not tied to standoff, Pentagon says.


WASHINGTON — The Pentagon canceled plans Wednesday to provide a public explanation of why it contracted with firms operating low-wage plants in China and other countries to manufacture millions of black berets for the U.S. Army.

The Defense Department insisted that the decision had nothing to do with the delicate state of U.S.-China diplomacy after the collision Sunday of a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. spy plane.

"It turned out the review wasn't finished and we weren't ready, that is the bottom line," Pentagon spokesman Glenn Flood said.

The internal review was conducted to ensure that proper procedures were followed in awarding $29.6 million in contracts to acquire 4.8 million berets to companies operating overseas plants.

In October, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki decided that all soldiers, except members of the Army Rangers, Special Forces and airborne units, would begin wearing black berets as standard gear on June 14, the Army's 226th birthday. He said the berets would symbolize the Army's transformation into a more mobile force.

Because of the tight deadline and large number of berets needed, the Pentagon exercised its authority to waive a provision of federal law that says it must buy clothing made of American components and assembled in U.S. factories. Companies with plants in China, Canada, Sri Lanka, India, Romania and South Africa, as well as a firm in Arkansas, were awarded contracts.

Production began months ago, and the Pentagon has taken delivery of thousands of berets. About 618,000 berets were to be manufactured in China under a $4-million contract with a British firm.

The contracts called for delivery of 1.3 million berets by June 14.

The overseas contracts angered U.S. apparel makers, who said they could have handled the order if given more time. Some members of Congress objected too, and the Pentagon announced in March that it would conduct an internal review. Production was not halted, however, and it appeared the review would conclude that the contracts were justified.

Shinseki was to appear today before the House Small Business Committee to explain his decision to place overseas orders for the berets.

"We want to encourage them to stop the contract from being fulfilled and turn over the rest of the production to the United States," said Rich Carter, spokesman for Rep. Donald A. Manzullo (R-Ill.), the committee chairman. "There are a lot of questions yet to be answered."

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