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Feb. 8, 2011—Last August, the nearly 40-year saga to restore the honor of the late Maj. Gen. John Lavelle finally appeared headed towards its climax. Unfortunately for Lavelle supporters, there've been complications since then.

The Senate Armed Services Committee leadership indicated its intent at the time to act expeditiously on President Obama's nomination of Lavelle for posthumous advancement to the rank of general on the retired rolls.

But the committee has subsequently identified deficiencies with the Defense Department's analysis that anchored the case for Obama's nomination. It's asked DOD to go back and examine additional materials relevant to Lavelle's case.

"Senator Levin believes the department's analysis was incomplete," Tara Andringa, spokeswoman for SASC Chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), told the Daily Report in a written response to a query.

The Air Force press office referred our query to the Office of the Secretary of Defense public affairs shop. OSD spokeswoman Eileen Lainez told the Daily Report that the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness "has received" the Senators' letter requesting more study of the case "and will respond to the Senators as appropriate."

She said, "At this time, it is premature to speculate," when asked about more details regarding the timeline and process for re-examining the case.

The SASC's approval would restore the two stars that the Pentagon leadership stripped from Lavelle in 1972 for allegedly ordering unauthorized bombing strikes in North Vietnam and then falsifying documents to conceal them. An Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records investigation, factoring new evidence identified in information declassified in 2007, definitively cleared Lavelle of wrongdoing.

The board concluded that President Nixon "authorized" Lavelle "to conduct the bombing missions." Further, it "found no evidence Lavelle caused, either directly or indirectly, the falsification of records, or that he was even aware of their existence."

However, Levin believes that "Historical documents exist that appear to contradict the conclusions of the Air Force board [and they] were not assessed by the department," wrote Andringa. She added, "The committee cannot analyze the merits of this nomination without a comprehensive assessment by the department of the impact of these documents on the merits."

Levin's position is that "the issue of falsified reports in Maj. Gen. Lavelle's command, and his responsibility for them—a significant issue in the 1972 hearings, was not addressed at all by the department."

The SASC leadership—Levin and ranking member Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)—first announced these concerns in a joint statement in December.

Among the historical documents that Levin wants DOD to address are those contained in a new volume of the Foreign Relations of the United States, the official documentary historical record of major US foreign policy decisions and significant diplomatic activity. The State Department issued FRUS, 1969-1976, Volume VIII, Vietnam, January-October 1972, last June—after the Air Force board had concluded its review. (State Department press release; Vol. VIII webpage, and Vol. VIII full document; caution, large-sized file)

The documents of interest "would generally be those in Volume VIII that pertain to bombing authorities in North Vietnam, including discussions in the White House/National Security Council of those authorities, and requests to revise them," Andringa wrote. "Committee staff found documents 1, 4, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, 18, 28, 42, 44, and 49 to be of particular relevance."

No mention of Lavelle by name is made in these documents.

Among them, Document 13, for example, is the transcript of a National Security Council meeting with President Nixon on Feb. 2, 1972, in which Nixon talks at length with his senior staff about the air authorities in place for striking North Vietnamese targets. That date is seven weeks before the Pentagon leadership on March 23, 1972, recalled Lavelle from his post as commander of 7th Air Force in Saigon. Two weeks later came Lavelle's abrupt retirement. He died in 1979.

Andringa noted that this list of documents "is not meant to be exhaustive; it is incumbent on the department to review all the relevant documents of the era, including those not readily available to the public or the committee."

Levin's office said it did not know when DOD intends to resubmit Lavelle's nomination.

"If the nomination is resubmitted, Senator Levin would look to consider it in a timely manner," wrote Andringa.

Lavelle's wife Mary Josephine, now in her early 90s, and her family deserved "prompt action," wrote Levin and McCain in a joint statement last Aug. 5, when they acknowledged receipt of General Lavelle's nomination. Six months have now passed.

(See also Two Stars for Lavelle from the August 2010 Daily Report archives)