NORFOLK, Va. -- The retired four-star admiral leading the inquiry into what caused the space shuttle Columbia tragedy is described as a charismatic problem-solver who may hold the key to the public's acceptance of the board's findings.
Harold W. Gehman Jr., who led the probe into the 2000 terrorist bombing of the USS Cole, said the shuttle investigation is similar in some ways. The report will not name names; it will look at NASA's bureaucracy.
"The way I like to describe it," he said recently, "is individuals don't need to worry about anything. ... But if you have a secretary and a potted plant outside your office, then you're fair game."
The bombing of the Norfolk-based Cole in Yemen was the first time terrorists had successfully attacked a Navy ship. Seventeen sailors were killed. Gehman's commission reported that the bombers found a "seam in the fabric" of the Navy's defenses.
The commission did not assess the performance of the captain or crew or probe why they failed to foresee the attack, but instead sought to draw lessons for improving the security of U.S. forces.
While it is hard to find critics of the 60-year-old admiral, one is the father of a sailor killed in the Cole attack.
"That so-called 'investigation' that he did - a lot of things were left out," said John Clodfelter, whose son Kenneth, 21, died in the bombing. "The main thing was how everything occurred with the attack on the ship. That wasn't really spelled out at all. He might be very smart, but as far as doing what he did on the Cole, I don't think he did a good job."
But colleagues of Gehman's offer only the highest praise.
"If I were looking to put a trustworthy person in a position, including president, I would choose Hal Gehman," said retired Rear Adm. Mack C. Gaston, who has known him for three decades. "You can bet he will call it like it is and make sound decisions."
In the days since the Columbia accident investigation board has set up offices in Texas near the Johnson Space Center, Gehman has demonstrated an even temper, a genial personality and a willingness to defer to other members of the board if he lacks the expertise to answer questions from reporters.
Space policy analyst John Pike said Gehman, who was educated as an industrial engineer, is qualified to lead a technical investigation into the shuttle breakup but lacks the political stature to delve into policy and institutional failures that led to the disaster.
"It's still basically a plane crash investigation," Pike said. "What they're trying to do is minimize the policy ramifications of this accident. When you get into policy failures, that starts to jeopardize major interests. It raises questions of why does America have a space program?"
Pike said there should be a second probe to answer those kinds of questions.
"The credibility of the findings with the public will ultimately rest on the credibility of the panel members," said Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a nonprofit military intelligence and space research think tank in Alexandria. "In the real world, the public is more likely to trust household names than a bunch of resumes that they've never heard of before."
Some in Congress have also called for a separate independent probe of the Feb. 1 shuttle accident in which seven astronauts died. They are concerned about a lack of independence because the Gehman panel was appointed by NASA and its chief, Sean O'Keefe.
In an interview Saturday, Gehman dismissed the need for a separate investigation and disagreed that the board is not independent enough.
"The board is made up of 10 people, any one of whom could be the chairman. These people are all chief investigators in their own right or leaders in their own area," he said. "They would be offended if somebody said we could be influenced by Mr. O'Keefe or anyone else."
Those who know Gehman well say he earned respect and credibility throughout his 35-year Navy career.
Retired Rear Adm. Thomas F. Marfiak called him particularly brilliant at "getting people to work together and see as far as the leader can see. I think that's what Hal does best."
Gehman grew up in Norfolk, home of the Navy's Atlantic Fleet, and decided early on to follow the career path of his father, commander of a destroyer.
He served in Vietnam and held key positions in and out of Washington, ending his career wearing two hats: NATO's supreme allied commander Atlantic and commander in chief of the U.S. Joint Forces Command, responsible for more than 1 million American forces. After retiring in September 2000, he settled in nearby Virginia Beach.
"He was a major force in reconstructing the modern military, though he would shy from taking any credit for that," said naval historian Alan Flanders. "He came along at a time when joint warfare effort was a new term. He was a pioneer supporter of that."
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