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Marine Osprey Coverup Probe Reaches Top Pentagon Brass

By Mary Pat Flaherty and Thomas E. Ricks
THE WASHINGTON POST -- WASHINGTON

The Defense Department’s inspector general has seized data from the computers of two Marine generals as an investigation into an alleged coverup of problems with the troubled V-22 Osprey aircraft is reaching into the top ranks at the Pentagon.

The investigation began in January with allegations that a lieutenant colonel who commanded the Osprey squadron in North Carolina encouraged crews to falsify maintenance records. Investigators are now looking into whether the squadron commander was pressured by superiors to hide the shortcomings of the Osprey, an innovative aircraft that takes off like a helicopter but flies like a plane.

In a late October meeting with the Osprey squadron, one Marine general urged subordinates to “figure out how to manage and minimize the impact” of a rigid record-keeping system that had shown the aircraft were often grounded or available only for limited flights, according to notes on the meeting obtained by The Washington Post.

The Marine Corps has steadfastly defended the tilt-rotor aircraft against critics who charge that it is too expensive and unreliable. The Corps wants to buy 360 Ospreys at a total cost of $40 billion and has stuck with those plans despite three crashes, since 1992, that killed 26 Marines and four civilians.

Investigators working for the Defense Department’s acting inspector general, Robert Lieberman, recently took data from the computer hard drives of Lt. Gen. Fred McCorkle, the head of Marine aviation, and McCorkle’s assistant, Brig. Gen. James F. Amos, several Marines and a Pentagon official said.

“It’s all about the e-mail trail, as part of the search to figure out what’s there,” said a Marine officer familiar with the Osprey program.

Investigators are also looking into the actions of Maj. Gen. Dennis T. Krupp, commanding general of the aircraft wing that includes the Osprey squadron in New River, N.C. Krupp met with the squadron in October and emphasized that computerized maintenance records were making the Osprey look bad, according to a summary written by an officer in training as an Osprey pilot.

“Skin this cat,” Krupp said, according to the officer’s notes.

Krupp also noted the importance of guarding the Osprey’s image, advising squadron members that whenever they allow photographs of the aircraft to be taken, they should “make sure that they look good and/or are doing something,” the notes on the meeting say.

The Osprey program faced a critical juncture at the end of 2000, with a change of administration in the White House. The change of administration was important because then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney had halted the Osprey program in 1989, citing cost.