WASHINGTON — The Bush administration's nominee to become the next head of the Air Force is facing trouble in the Senate and will undergo an unusual second round of closed-door questioning today.
Air Force Gen. Norton A. Schwartz is being called before the Senate Armed Services Committee for a second classified session focused on testimony he gave after the initial invasion of Iraq, said military and congressional staff members.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared before the committee in another secret session Tuesday evening, attempting to press the case for Schwartz.
Schwartz was nominated after Gates fired Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley and Secretary Michael W. Wynne over missteps in overseeing the military's nuclear arsenal. Mosley, a fighter pilot, and Wynne also clashed with Gates over funding for the F-22 fighter plane.
Schwartz, a former cargo pilot, had promised to take a new look at the service's spending priorities and to restore Air Force credibility.
But senators have raised questions about classified testimony Schwartz gave when he was director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the early phase of the Iraq war.
During that testimony in 2003, Schwartz was asked about Iraqi munitions. In the aftermath of the invasion, the U.S. had neglected Iraqi ammunition dumps and looters raided the sites, stealing old artillery shells and other weapons that later would be used to build roadside bombs.
When asked at the time about the munitions, Schwartz told senators and House members that he did not know the answer to their questions. However, some lawmakers believed Schwartz knew more than he acknowledged. And now, behind closed doors, senators want Schwartz to explain more fully whether he withheld answers.
One congressional staffer said committee members had not reached a conclusion about whether to approve the nomination.
"People are reluctant to block him or deny him this promotion," the staffer said. "But if those in uniform come before Congress and fail to answer questions they know the answers to, what kind of message does that send?"
Another staffer said he expected Schwartz, who is highly regarded in Congress, would be approved. Military officials said Gates and Mullen went to the Hill on Tuesday to convince the committee that Schwartz's confirmation was vital to remaking the Air Force.
"If the question is Nortie Schwartz's trustworthiness, honor, reliability, I can tell you Secretary Gates has no questions about any of those characteristics in Gen. Schwartz," said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary. "He believes he is the ideal guy to lead the Air Force now."