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Did Maine Guard chief try to remake second unit without telling governor?

Brig. Gen. James Campbell, the commander of the Maine National Guard, went to Washington, D.C., last year without Gov. Paul LePage’s knowledge to pitch a plan to convert a combat communications squadron based in South Portland into a cyber security unit, according to two people with direct knowledge of the trip, one of whom is a high-ranking Guard official.

“When it came to light that Gen. Campbell had failed to inform the governor or (Maine’s congressional) delegation, it was basically stopped,” said one of the people with knowledge of the trip.

The disclosure is another example of what appears to be a disconnect between Campbell and LePage, the commander in chief of Maine’s National Guard, over how the Guard will be structured at a time of shifting national military priorities.

Campbell, a former infantry officer who now is adjutant general of all Maine Guard units, has been criticized in recent weeks for his plans to send the 133rd Engineer Battalion to another state in exchange for an infantry unit.

LePage apparently was surprised when the Press Herald broke the first story about the plan for the 133rd, on April 30. He called a reporter in an unsuccessful attempt to identify the source of the information.

Both people with knowledge of Campbell’s plan for the South Portland-based squadron spoke to the Portland Press Herald about the general’s trip to the National Guard Bureau in Washington, but asked the newspaper to withhold their names because they were worried about damaging the careers of other Guard members.

Adrienne Bennett, the governor’s press secretary, disputed the accounts provided to the newspaper Wednesday, saying in an email that there is “no story” because the information was not confirmed by the National Guard Bureau.

“We have factual information that directly contradicts what they told you, but the governor will not be dragged into stories manufactured by anonymous sources,” said Bennett. She refused to provide any information that contradicts what the newspaper has been told.

The National Guard Bureau would not answer questions about Campbell’s efforts and referred all inquiries to the Maine Army National Guard. The Maine Guard’s public affairs officer, Maj. Michael Steinbuchel, did not respond to emails or voicemails seeking comment Tuesday or Wednesday.

In recent weeks, Steinbuchel has referred all questions about the interstate Guard exchange to Peter Steele, the governor’s communications director.

Steele said in an email Wednesday that the governor’s office would not provide information about Campbell’s meeting in Washington until the newspaper named “a source in D.C. who saw and heard Campbell.”

“It is not Steinbuchel’s responsibility (nor ours) to confirm or deny what disgruntled anonymous sources are telling you,” Steele wrote.

One person with knowledge of Campbell’s trip last summer said Campbell went to the National Guard Bureau in Washington with Brig. Gen. Gerard Bolduc and Col. Eric Lind to pitch a plan to convert the 265th Combat Communications Squadron in South Portland into a cyber security unit to deal with online threats.

The conversion would have resulted in a force reduction of dozens of soldiers and hampered Maine’s ability to respond to emergencies or natural disasters. Members of the 265th assist utility companies with telephone and electrical line repairs during such events.

One of the people who described the plan for the 265th to the newspaper said they had documentation of the plan but were unable to provide it immediately.

Bolduc did not respond to an email seeking comment on Campbell’s trip.

When asked about the visit to Washington in a brief phone interview Wednesday, Lind responded, “Who told you that?” and then referred all questions to Steinbuchel, the Guard’s public affairs officer.

Brig. Gen. Stephen Atkinson, a former commander of the Maine Air National Guard, said Wednesday that there were discussions about swapping out the 265th long before Campbell became adjutant general. Atkinson oversaw the 265th before he retired in March 2013, having served under Campbell for eight months.

“There are always discussions about strategic planning and there was a discussion about the role of the 265th and whether that was something the Air Force needed or wanted,” Atkinson said.

Critics of Campbell’s plan for the 133rd Engineer Battalion say Maine will lose valuable services if an infantry unit replaces the engineers, who regularly do service projects for municipalities or nonprofit groups and are called on in emergencies such as major storms, floods or other disasters.

Dozens of soldiers have contacted the newspaper, saying they felt betrayed by the plan. One high-ranking officer said the atmosphere at Camp Keyes, the Guard’s headquarters in Augusta, is “absolutely toxic. There is a poor command climate, lack of transparency and general intimidation from senior leaders.”

Campbell spoke publicly about the controversy for the first time Tuesday. He said the conversion of the 133rd is being driven by federal budget cuts and the Army’s new strategic vision of giving more resources to the “teeth,” front-line infantry units, at the expense of the “tail,” support operations by engineers, construction crews, medics and military police.

LePage has defended Campbell, saying the proposed exchange of engineers for infantry is several years in the future. That assertion doesn’t square with reports from Guard members that a senior officer on Campbell’s staff gave a presentation last month that showed the 133rd leaving Maine by next summer.

During a media briefing Tuesday on the controversy over the 133rd Engineer Battalion, Campbell said support operations, such as engineers, communications and military police, are being targeted for conversion as the military alters its strategic vision.

One person with knowledge of Campbell’s efforts said that although the communications unit technically plays a supporting role, it likely would not have been converted because unit commanders never feel they have sufficient resources for communications.

Campbell advanced his plan for the 265th against the advice of other commanders, who were worried about emergency preparedness at home, the person said.

“You don’t trade off that manpower unless you have to,” he said.

 

Staff Writer Eric Russell contributed to this report.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@pressherald.com

Twitter: @randybillings

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