ST. LOUIS—An attempt to build international goodwill backfired horribly for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld Monday, when he was unable to pick up the tab for Australian Defense Minister Sen. Robert Hill's order of 11 Apache AH-64 helicopters using the U.S.'s credit card.
"It was extraordinarily embarrassing for poor Donald," said Hill, who visited the Boeing production facility with Rumsfeld and Joint Chief of Staff Richard Myers. "He'd been going on for the entire tour about how America was stronger than it had ever been, and then that happened. He turned red as a beet."
The credit card, a Fort Knox Executive Club Visa granted to the U.S. during the Clinton Administration, had an assigned $300 million credit line. When the country accrued a balance approaching the limit in 1995, the credit-card company awarded the U.S. additional credit. According to a Visa representative who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the company granted extensions 14 times since then, but as of Monday, the card had never been rejected outright.
Boeing sales representative Alonso Martinez said that he attempted to charge the 11 $21.4 million helicopters, for a total of $235.4 million, to the card at approximately 4 p.m.
"Sir, your card was denied," Martinez told Rumsfeld in a lowered voice. "Do you have another one we could try?"
According to Martinez, Rumsfeld became flustered and insisted that the problem rested with Boeing's credit-card reader.
"That card's good," Rumsfeld said. "Run it again."
As Martinez went into a back room to run the charge again, Rumsfeld assured Hill that "there must be some kind of mix-up."
"You can tell Boeing didn't engineer the card machine," Rumsfeld said, smiling nervously. "If they had, it wouldn't have all these glitches. Well, I suppose that right now, we need Boeing to be focused on the war effort."
Hill, who had accepted Rumsfeld's offer to pay for his new attack helicopters during an exclusive tour of Boeing's 220-acre military aircraft facility outside St. Louis, mumbled in agreement.
When Martinez returned a second time, he took Rumsfeld aside.
"Seems nobody's paid the balance on this guy for the past four months, sir," Martinez said. "Unless you can work it out with the card company, I'll have to physically destroy the card. Terribly sorry, sir."
Martinez escorted Rumsfeld to his office, dialed the number on the back of the card, and handed the phone to the defense secretary.
"It appears the White House had just used the card for some lawyer fees, and then the CIA threw a huge going-away party for someone," Atlanta-based Visa customer-service representative Tracy Waterson said. "There's a hold on use of the card until Congress approves the next budget allocation."
Waterson was unmoved by Rumsfeld's demand for a credit extension.
"We've got to draw the line somewhere, Mr. Rumsfield [sic], and this just happens to be where we do it," Waterson said. "Last April, you told us you'd start repaying us in a month or two, when you finished the Iraq war. We understand that you've run into some complications on your end, and we have tried to accommodate your needs, but we're concerned that you may be accumulating too much debt."
Added Waterson: "We're not going to close your account, but we are going to freeze your borrowing for a couple of months, until we see a change in your administration's fiscal situation. I'm afraid that's all I can do. I'd be happy to transfer you to one of our debt-management consultants who can provide you with some tips for—"
Quickly hanging up the phone, Rumsfeld told Martinez that there was a problem with the company's computer, but that Martinez should load the helicopters onto the supply convoy and bill the U.S. government.
"Sir, we very much appreciate your business, and we look forward to working with you again just as soon as you get your credit issues sorted out," Martinez said, glancing apologetically at Hill. "But let's just call it a day, now, shall we?"