The much-anticipated final report by the Pentagon inspector general on the Boeing tanker scandal was released yesterday at a testy Senate...

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WASHINGTON — The much-anticipated final report by the Pentagon inspector general on the Boeing tanker scandal was released yesterday at a testy Senate hearing. But by the end of the session, it seemed there was no immediate end of controversy in sight for Boeing or some current and former Air Force officials who championed the ill-fated procurement deal.

Furthermore, leading senators at the hearing made clear they would like officials in the White House and in the defense secretary’s office to explain their roles in the defunct $23 billion proposal to lease 100 Boeing 767 tankers to the Air Force.

But in the meantime, neither the White House nor the Air Force or the Department of Defense will allow members of the Senate Armed Services Committee to review many unabridged tanker documents that show the names of administration players, members of Congress or Boeing executives in an unflattering light.

The report’s findings, and the questions it doesn’t answer, are likely to keep the issue alive in the Senate and in the media, creating a hurdle for Boeing if it bids on a new tanker contract later this year.

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The first surprise in the 256-page report on “accountability” was the amount of material that had been blacked out.

Another crucial revelation was that former Undersecretary of Defense Edward “Pete” Aldridge had refused to cooperate with the inspector general’s investigation. Aldridge was in charge of defense acquisitions; he approved the tanker deal in May 2003, on his way out the door of the Pentagon.

The report debunked earlier claims by the Air Force that new tankers were urgently needed because the older fleet had major corrosion problems.

It also criticized the Air Force for “tailoring” — meaning reducing — its war-fighting requirements for the planned tanker lease to match capabilities of a 767 already being altered for use as a tanker by the Italian military.

Inspector General Joseph Schmitz said he would likely refer at least one unspecified matter to the U.S. attorney for possible criminal prosecution.

He added that former Air Force acquisitions officer Darlene Druyun “didn’t operate in a vacuum” in the Boeing tanker deal. Druyun went to prison for illegally negotiating a job with Boeing while overseeing the tanker deal and numerous other contracts.

The tanker deal was proposed shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, at a time when the airline industry was reeling.

The Air Force had hoped to lease refueling tankers from Boeing and avoid a lengthy congressional procurement process to buy them. But after Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., raised questions, the deal was finally killed in 2004.

Yesterday’s hearing exacerbated the tug of war between the administration and members of the Armed Services Committee. McCain, along with ranking Democrat Carl Levin, Mich., committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., and others, decried the amount of material redacted from the report.

There are “critical gaps” in the report, said an irritated Levin. One such critical gap is Aldridge; McCain barraged Schmitz with questions about the investigators’ inability to interview Aldridge.

“My staff could not reach him,” said Schmitz, noting they had sent a registered letter and left a voice mail at his home and messages at the number he had given the Pentagon. Aldridge is now a member of the board of Lockheed Martin, the giant defense contractor based in the D.C. suburbs, and he lives nearby.

“You couldn’t get ahold of him through Lockheed-Martin?” asked an incredulous McCain. “I think we should subpoena Mr. Aldridge to get his statement.”

E-mails found by McCain’s staff say Boeing and the Air Force wanted the tanker deal inked by Aldridge before he left, because otherwise they would lack a key “sponsor” later.

Warner calmly suggested Aldridge be allowed to appear voluntarily first, “since he should be locate-able.” But a few minutes later, the senator told Schmitz testily, “I think you should have utilized the subpoena.”

A Boeing spokesman said the company had no comment on the report.

Aldridge could not be reached for comment, but last week he told Reuters the inspector general was just trying to “dig up dirt.”

One longtime critic of the tanker deal said the report “throws cold water on the lone gunman theory that Darleen Druyun is entirely to blame for this mess.”

“We now know that at the highest levels of the Pentagon and the White House, the wheels were greased to direct billions in corporate welfare to the Boeing Company,” said Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a D.C. watchdog group.

But because of “the inspector general’s reluctance to grill the secretary of defense” and “overzealous redactions,” he added, “we are now left with more questions than answers.”

Afterward, McCain said, “This isn’t over,” adding he would like to get Aldridge’s story from Aldridge himself.

Several Senate aides said McCain also may want to talk with the White House and Pentagon general counsels.

Alicia Mundy: 202-662-7457 or amundy@seattletimes.com