For the past three years, the Air Force has described its $30 billion proposal to convert passenger planes into military refueling tankers...

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WASHINGTON — For the past three years, the Air Force has described its $30 billion proposal to convert passenger planes into military refueling tankers and lease them from Boeing as an efficient way to obtain aircraft the military urgently needs.

But a very different account of the deal is shown in an August 2002 internal e-mail exchange among four senior Pentagon officials.

“We all know that this is a bailout for Boeing,” Ronald Garant, an official of the Pentagon comptroller’s office, said in a message to two others in his office and then-Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Wayne Schroeder.

“Why don’t we just bite the bullet,” he asked, and handle the deal like the procurement of a 1970s-era aircraft: by squeezing the company to provide a better tanker at a decent cost?

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“We didn’t need those aircraft either, but we didn’t screw the taxpayer in the process,” Garant added, referring to widespread sentiment at the Pentagon that the proposed lease of Boeing 767s would cost too much for a plane with major shortcomings.

Garant’s candid advice, which top Air Force officials did not follow, is disclosed for the first time in a new 256-page report by the Pentagon’s inspector general. The report is slated for release today at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

After interviewing 88 people and reading hundreds of thousands of pages of e-mails, the inspector general’s office concluded that four top Air Force officials and one of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s former top aides, Undersecretary of Defense Edward C. “Pete” Aldridge, violated Pentagon and government-wide procurement rules, failing to use “best business practices,” ignoring a legal requirement for weapons testing and failing to ensure the tankers would meet the military’s requirements.

The report connects Rumsfeld to policy-making on the lease, recounting a statement by former Air Force Secretary James Roche that Rumsfeld had called him in Newport, R.I., in July 2003 to say “he did not want me to budge on the tanker lease proposal,” despite criticism.

Air Force spokesman Douglas Karas said he could not comment on the report in detail until it has been officially released. A Boeing spokesman said the company could not comment on a report it has not read.

The Pentagon ultimately killed the lease deal. Its officials have noted the department is conducting special oversight of Air Force weapons-buying.

The report is the most damning of the three reviews of the tanker deal completed by the inspector general since early 2004. It includes, for example, a statement from an unnamed cost analyst that “numbers were contorted a lot of different ways to sell the program.”

The Air Force has long maintained that any defects in the lease proposal were attributable solely to Air Force principal deputy assistant secretary Darlene Druyun, who is serving a nine-month sentence in federal prison for illegally negotiating a lucrative job with Boeing as she supervised the lease negotiations.

The inspector general’s report makes it clear that the Air Force’s aggressive pursuit of the lease over a three-year period was actually a team effort, and that shortly after Druyun agreed to the concept in a September 2001 meeting attended by top Boeing officials, other top officials fell into lock step with her.