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Plane deal dooms general

WASHINGTON — The Air Force general who withdrew his nomination to head the military's largest war-fighting command said Thursday he was disappointed but not angry at his chief critic, Sen. John McCain.

McCain relentlessly pressed Gen. Gregory Martin at his confirmation hearing Wednesday on a contentious issue — Air Force efforts to lease Boeing 767s as replacements for older refueling aircraft. The Arizona Republican says it was a sweetheart deal that would have cheated taxpayers.

"A national disgrace," McCain called it at the hearing, which began amicably but deteriorated once McCain went on the offensive.

In a telephone interview from his Air Force Materiel Command headquarters at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, Martin said he played no part in the Boeing contract negotiations. His name has appeared on some internal e-mails related to the tanker plan.

"I had absolutely nothing to do with it," said Martin, who hours after the hearing announced he was withdrawing his nomination to head the U.S. Pacific Command.

McCain's campaign against the now-moribund Boeing deal is taking a mounting toll on the Air Force and the Pentagon.

Last year the Bush administration was compelled to withdraw the nomination of Air Force Secretary James Roche to be the next Army secretary, partly due to McCain's stance. He also blocked the nomination of Lawrence Di Rita to be assistant secretary of defense for public affairs.

Martin said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has agreed to keep him in his current job as commander of Air Force Materiel Command, even though Gen. Bruce Carlson has been confirmed by the Senate as Martin's successor. It is not clear where that will leave Carlson, who is commander of the 8th Air Force.

Betraying no bitterness, Martin said he and the Air Force were willing to do "whatever it takes" to provide McCain the information he seeks to resolve remaining questions about the Boeing deal.

Previously, the administration had refused to provide some Air Force e-mails sought by McCain, on grounds that they are internal communications not subject to congressional review.

"What we need to do now ... is put this thing behind us because it causes tremendous turbulence and difficulty to organizations that are trying their very best to do good work every day," Martin said.

McCain also grilled Martin, a Vietnam veteran with 34 years in the Air Force, about his former Air Force civilian colleague, Darleen Druyun. She was sentenced last week to nine months in prison for granting favors in contracts to Boeing before taking a job with the company.

At one point Martin said he had seen no inappropriate behavior during the year or so they worked together in the Pentagon. McCain responded, "General, I'm questioning your qualifications for command."

McCain challenged Martin's contention that he had done all he could to respond to the senator's demands for Air Force e-mail messages related to the plan for replacing older KC-135 refueling aircraft with leased Boeing 767s.

"I will strongly object to your nomination leaving this committee until we get all of the e-mails and all of the answers, of which I have very many," McCain told Martin, whose wife, Wendy, and brother, Steve, were in the audience and were introduced at the start of the hearing.

With those words from McCain, Martin said, he realized that his nomination was probably doomed.

In the interview, Martin said his wife and brother were more upset about the setback than he is.

"I'm not disappointed for me," he said. "I am more concerned about living up to the expectations of those people who put me here and those people who work for me and trust me. The disappointment comes in feeling as if their trust in me has been somewhat diminished."