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The Navy has relieved of command a carrier air-wing commander and “Top Gun” pilot for maintaining a private business relationship with junior officers, we have learned.

The Navy confirmed to us that Capt. Thomas W. Trotter, who returned to San Diego in December as air commander on the carrier USS Constellation, was relieved of those duties April 17.

Cmdr. David Koontz, spokesman for Naval Air Force, Pacific Fleet, said the action was “due to the loss of confidence in Capt. Trotter’s ability to effectively lead his air wing.”

Cmdr. Koontz said the action was taken by Rear Adm. David Hart, the Constellation battle group commander. “This is an administrative procedure, and because of the Privacy Act, it would be extremely inappropriate to comment on any of the details,” the spokesman said.

But other Navy sources said Capt. Trotter maintained a business relationship with three junior officers, who shared ownership of a private plane. The military frowns on such arrangements, because they create the appearance of favoritism. “It just defies basic leadership policies and common sense,” said a Navy source. The case will be reviewed by Vice Adm. Mike Bowman, the Navy’s top Pacific fleet air commander.

A 22-year veteran, Capt. Trotter is an F-18 Hornet pilot who commanded the fabled Navy Fighter Weapons School, or Top Gun, in the mid-1990s. He was tapped to lead Carrier Air Wing Two in November.

CIA bombs
The Central Intelligence Agency’s role in the errant NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia was especially embarrassing for the spy service. It had put much effort and resources in recent years to providing intelligence support to the military.

Shortcomings were highlighted during the 1991 Persian Gulf war when on-time intelligence for war fighters was hard to come by. Since then, the CIA has made supporting the military a top priority.

The CIA’s accountability review board completed a Belgrade bombing investigation earlier this month. The board blamed seven persons who relied on outdated maps for the bombing. CIA Director George Tenet then fired one person and sent letters of reprimand to the six others.

We have learned from intelligence officials that the highest-ranking CIA official singled out for punishment was Maj. Gen. Roderick J. Isler, the assistant director of intelligence for military support, who was reprimanded. Gen. Isler was the highest-ranking CIA official to approve the bombing proposal before it was sent to the Pentagon and NATO.

Critics of the agency said the review board should have included the top dog on the list — Mr. Tenet himself. As one official put it, “There’s no sign on his desk that says ‘The buck stops here.”’ Morale among some CIA officers has dropped over the punishment.

After all, the other layers of the defense and military bureaucracy apparently avoided culpability. Officials said there were several people who signed off on the target after the CIA “nominated” the site in Belgrade as a target, mistakenly thinking it was a Yugoslav military weapons-buying center. Others who approved it included officials at the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, NATO headquarters in Europe and the targeting center in Vicenza, Italy.

Some officials were particularly upset about the selective punishment because it appeared to be a political bone to Beijing. China’s government demanded that all those responsible for the bombing be punished and rejected the agency’s explanation when it was presented formally to the Chinese on April 8.

A CIA spokesman declined comment when asked about the reprimand of Gen. Isler.

Patriot fixes
One of the biggest secrets in the Pentagon is the ongoing clandestine program to fix serious problems uncovered on the Patriot anti-missile system. The Army announced last month it had secretly replaced hundreds of Patriot PAC-2 version missiles in the Persian Gulf and Korea. Tests found that keeping the missile on “hot” alert status for too long caused a malfunction.

What remains secret — classified at the “top-secret-codeword” level, we are told — is that additional problems were found during testing. One includes a flaw in the Patriot’s actuator-fin controllers — the part of the missile interceptor that helps guide it to an incoming missile warhead. With short-range missile threats growing, the Israelis are particularly worried that a hostile neighbor could launch an attack. The Kuwaitis and Saudis are, too. And with reports of Chinese short-range missile exercises, Taiwan also is fearful that its PAC-2s are vulnerable.

Half of the 1,400 Patriots were found to have problems. The Pentagon is still deciding what to do about fixing it. The cost will be $56 million to $70 million. The bad Patriots were being replaced with reserve missiles. “This is a big problem,” said one knowledgeable official. “Now we don’t have any spares.” Possible fixes include upgrade to the GEM or PAC-3 versions.

Intercepts

  • Gen. John M. Keane, vice Army chief of staff, riled Pentagon officers this month. He sent out a tart memo saying he sees too many unkempt soldiers walking the E-ring corridor. Now, the officers are grumbling that if the career airborne warrior is so concerned about shaggy hair and dull shoes, why not change regulations to let them carry umbrellas?

    Said one officer, “If the (vice chief) is so concerned about the personal appearance of his staff, why not let males use umbrellas when it’s raining, like the Air Force, Navy, and the rest of the civilized world do?” A retired Army general countered, “If it’s raining, wear a raincoat and plastic cover.”

  • Some Democratic operatives are seriously promoting Defense Secretary William S. Cohen as a vice presidential running mate for Al Gore. Asked about this yesterday, the former Republican senator said, “My plans are to become a private citizen at the end of President Clinton’s term. What I’ve indicated during the course of interviews, I think it’s important that any time a president asks a citizen to serve as a secretary of state, as secretary of defense, or indeed a vice president, people should give that serious consideration because they’re important positions. My plans are to become a private citizen.”

    Sounds like a “no” to us. Besides, in a recent TV interview, Mr. Cohen said that “in all probability” he would vote for Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

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