By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force is looking into how classified data about a competition for a next-generation U.S. bomber found its way into a report published by Forbes magazine, according to several sources familiar with the issue.
Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin Corp this month filed a formal protest against the Air Force's contract with Northrop Grumman Corp to develop the new long-range strike bomber, a deal worth up to $80 billion.
Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute think tank, published a detailed column on the Forbes website the day the protest was filed, saying the estimate that it would cost $21.4 billion to develop the plane was roughly twice what the competing industry teams had bid.
The level of detail included in the column raised concerns given the classified nature of the bomber program, according to three of the sources.
Thompson said he was aware that his report had caused concerns, but did not know of any specific investigation that had been launched into how he obtained the information.
The Air Force declined comment on whether it was investigating the possible disclosure of classified information in the magazine report.
"The Air Force does not comment on whether or not media articles might contain classified information," said Major Robert Leese, an Air Force spokesman.
Boeing and Northrop had no comment.
U.S. Air Force acquisition chief William LaPlante on Tuesday declined to confirm that the bomber bids came in at about half the estimated value of the development program, which is structured as a cost-plus type contract.
But he said that in any cost-plus contract, the government develops its own estimate of the most probable cost - rather than simply accepting the contractor's estimates - since it would be liable for any potential future cost overruns.
In this case, the Air Force also got two independent cost estimates that came in within 2 percent of each other, he said, noting that neither of the estimates were part of the source selection process.
LaPlante, who is retiring at the end of the week, told reporters he remained confident that the acquisition process had been handled well and included high-level legal reviews.
"I look at what we did and I feel good about it," he said, although he conceded there was always a chance of a mistake.
"I’m confident. I’m not cocky about anything. Whenever you have humans involved, you just always have to be prepared for anything," he said.
LaPlante said he was not concerned about stepping down before the protest was decided since the issue was in the hands of the Government Accountabilty Office, the arm of Congress that decides on such matters, and the Air Force's legal team.
"During a protest period, for the job that I have, there’s very little to do," he said. "If I were to be in this job, I'm just as much a spectator as anybody else."
GAO is expected to rule on the Boeing protest by Feb. 16, 2016.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Leslie Adler)