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Gates tries to reassure U.S. Congress on deputy pick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Thursday he asked the White House to exempt an executive at a major defense contractor from new ethics rules so he could fill the No. 2 job at the Pentagon.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates takes a question during a press conference with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen (not pictured) at the Pentagon in Washington, January 22, 2009. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Gates also said officials were taking steps to make sure William Lynn’s work as deputy defense secretary would not influence any decisions involving Raytheon, the company he would leave to join the Pentagon if confirmed by the Senate.

Gates made the pledge after an independent watchdog group urged President Barack Obama to withdraw Lynn’s nomination, saying it undermined Obama’s commitment to raise ethical standards.

In one of his first acts in office, Obama issued an order on Wednesday banning lobbyists joining his administration from working on issues they have lobbied for in the two years before they entered government. The order allows the administration to grant waivers in individual cases.

At a Pentagon news conference, Gates said he asked for an exception to ethics rules to hire Lynn, a former Pentagon comptroller.

“I felt that he could ... play the role of the deputy in a better manner than anybody else that I saw,” said Gates, who served as Pentagon chief under George W. Bush and is staying on under Obama.

“I was very impressed with his credentials. He came with the highest recommendations of a number of people that I respect a lot.”

Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, said his panel would not proceed with Lynn’s nomination until it had more information.

Levin said his panel would need to know whether a waiver would be issued for Lynn and what the scope of it would be.

“The committee will await the administration’s assessment as to whether the new rules will preclude Mr. Lynn, who was a registered lobbyist for a defense contractor, from participating in key Department of Defense decisions,” he said.

Gates said: “We certainly owe the Armed Services Committee whatever information they need to feel comfortable going forward.”

As deputy defense secretary, Lynn would be responsible for much of the day-to-day management of the Pentagon, while Gates focuses on policy issues.

The relationship between defense companies and the Pentagon has long concerned watchdog groups, particularly after a huge procurement scandal in 2004 sent a former top Air Force acquisition official and Boeing Co former chief financial officer to federal prison for ethics violations.

The nonprofit Project On Government Oversight said Obama should choose a new candidate for deputy defense secretary.

“The defense industry is in a class of its own among all of the industries that have had a pervasive stranglehold on public policy to advance their own financial interests,” Danielle Brian, the group’s executive director, said in a statement.

“The Obama administration should not allow its ethics standards to begin with a series of waivers and loopholes, which immediately undermine its good intentions.”

Raytheon declined to comment on Lynn’s case.