Winslow Wheeler Shrugs Off ‘Gadfly’ Epithet

This is the second profile in an occasional series about individuals taking on the Goliaths of war from inside the belly of the beast — Washington, D.C.

Not many former staffers on Capitol Hill could say that they were fired for calling out that the emperor wears no clothes — especially when the “emperor” in question was Sen. John McCain.

In 2002, Winslow Wheeler was a legislative aide to Sen. Pete Domenici, R-New Mexico, then chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. Wheeler had taken to penning essays based on his own investigations into various activities taking place within the Senate defense budget appropriations process. He did this under a pen name, “Spartacus,” and circulated his findings and critiques through third party sources on Capitol Hill.

When he wrote at length about the $27 billion emergency supplemental funding bill that would bankroll the nascent Global War on Terror in June 2002, Wheeler illustrated in stark and unsparing terms how McCain had convinced the press he would thwart the pork barrel earmarks being fixed upon the bill by his colleagues, while simultaneously being “an active part of the approval process of each and every amendment” delivering more pork into the bill. In essence, McCain was a “pork enabler” and a hypocrite.

According to Wheeler, when McCain read the final essay, “Mr. Smith Is Dead: No One Stands In the Way as Congress Laces Post-Sept. 11 Defense Bills with Pork,” he “outed” Wheeler by identifying Spartacus. Wheeler was told he must resign from Domenici’s office or be fired.

It was the end to a 31-year career on the Hill in which Wheeler had also worked for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and at one point for both a Democrat (Sen. David Pryor of Arkansas) and a Republican (Sen. Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas) at the same time, serving as their legislative assistant on defense issues. When he left, Wheeler was told he was the first and last staffer to have straddled the divide.

Since then, Wheeler has enjoyed taking his rare brand of Washington truth-telling out into the open, publishing The Wastrels of Defense: How the U.S. Congress Sabotages National Security (2004) and more recently, editing The Pentagon Labyrinth: 10 Short Essays to Help You Through It (2011). The latter is an invaluable window into how defense spending on Capitol Hill works, with practical essays like “Careerism,” by Col. G.I. Wilson, “Follow the Money” by Andrew Cockburn, and “Penetrating the Pentagon” by veteran journalist George Wilson. Wheeler offers up “Decoding the Defense Budget,” which seems no less impossible than searching for the fountain of youth.

As an analyst for the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, Wheeler is now in a relatively safer perch from which to make his observations — mainly that most of Washington is wearing no clothes.

Take what he calls the latest “hysteria” over expected cuts to the defense budget. Here is where the circus really comes to town, he says. The military Cassandras wail that the armed services won’t be able to adapt or even defend the nation adequately if the so-called trigger is pulled and the worst-case scenario cuts DoD spending to the limit. Now cue surrogate think tanks, lobbyists, and assorted defense courtiers throughout Washington who see possible shrinkage in the number of plum appointments and defense contracts moving forward and are scrambling furiously to ensure that their constituencies bear the least impact.

Fact is, said Wheeler, even the most severe spending cuts on the table wouldn’t take the Pentagon anywhere below 2007 levels, which were $73 billion higher than in 2000.

What a show.

“I am not a ‘watchdog,’” he tells in a recent Q&A session. “I consider myself an observer of what is going in the defense world. I have access to a computer and I frequently write short analyses and commentaries, and I try to inform rather than just tell people what the hell I am thinking. People who want to discount me call me a ‘gadfly.’”

We wanted to hear more of what the hell he was thinking, and Mr. Wheeler was generous with his time.

Antiwar: How did that happen, you working for both a Republican and Democrat?

Wheeler: It was only possible because of the members — Nancy Kassebaum and David Pryor. They agreed on the national security issues and were both reformers on the Hill.

Antiwar: What was most fulfilling about working on the Hill?

Wheeler: On Capitol Hill, you have the opportunity to be involved in, and to influence national events for the better or the worse — whichever is your preference. At GAO, I had the opportunity to sit down and research things in depth and then be able to write reports about it. When I came to work for Domenici, I tried to combine the two. I instigated my involvement in a lot of investigative projects. Then I released them publicly, through third parties, under a pseudonym, “Spartacus.” Things like army readiness and training, fighter aircraft cost and design, how the operations and maintenance budget is spent on various different things. How pork is funded was the last one I did, under the “Mr. Smith Is Dead” essay. When John McCain got mad because I named him as a porker on the Hill, he disclosed my name and tried to get me fired. Actually, he succeeded. That’s when I left the Senate budget committee staff. Mr. Domenici was embarrassed to have a staffer criticize another senator.

Antiwar: Do you ever regret writing that piece, calling Mr. Anti-Pork a porker?

Wheeler: I should thank John McCain because after he tried to get me fired and succeeded, my salary went up, I got to work from home, and I published by first book. I should send him a formal thank-you letter.

Antiwar: What about McCain? How did it make you feel seeing him run for president in 2008 under the monikers of “maverick” and “rebel” and “pork-buster”?

Wheeler: [He’s] lots of talk, no action. In the Senate, talk is talk, and action is legislation. On rare occasions, he opposed other people’s pork amendments, but he never would do it aggressively or consistently. When it came, in 2006, for Congress to pass some “reforms” on pork, his proposals were riddled with loopholes, just like [then House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi’s were in the House, and it was more of the same cheap talk that the press sucked up big-time, and no results. And it’s most remarkable that in his own committee, the Armed Services Committee, how riddled with pork those bills were and still are. At worst, he enabled everyone else — all he did was send a message: “Hey, guys, keep on doing what you are doing, while I’m going to keep getting mileage out of these stupid press guys for being a hero.”

After a while, people got more of a taste of him. Certainly, Obama was an impressive candidate, but the election wasn’t particularly close, and I think that’s because people starting seeing that John McCain was just more talk and no action.

Antiwar: We’ve talked before, and you have made this provocative point: that regardless of all the money we have spent on the military post 9/11, our force strength and readiness is weaker than ever. Do you still believe that, and if so, why? How?

Wheeler: The data is there…. Compared to the year 2000, the Navy [fleet] is 10 percent smaller, the air [reserve fighter and bomber] squadrons, have gone down 50 percent. [Army Brigade] combat teams went up [44 to 45].

But this is not a smaller and newer force. The equipment for them is older than it was in 2000, and we give our forces less training time in the continental U.S. than we did in 2002. We have definitely a force that is smaller, older, and less trained. None of those things are our opinion; that is the data.

Antiwar: So what accounts for the increased spending?

Wheeler: Cost growth for equipment, increased personnel cost — it is not just the question of the extra salary that Congress has provided to military personnel, but it is also the Congress is ladling out the most expensive health care and survivors benefits…. Congress had been ladling things on, and in fact much of the damage was done before 9/11. But Congress has not pulled it back at all.

We have an unaffordable personnel situation and an unaffordable acquisition system. Nobody’s minded the store or is paying the slightest attention to any of these things…. They are surprised when cost overruns are brought to them and they do nothing about it…. These are behaviors and pressures that are decades old; they did not start on 9/11. It’s accelerated over the last 10 years, but these trends are anything but new. Obama did nothing about it. He was too scared of being labeled “anti-defense” to be tough on the Pentagon.

Antiwar: Thanks to the deficit-reduction deal passed this summer, the DoD is going to have to reduce spending by $350 billion over the next 10 years. What does this really mean in terms of impact? What about the so-called trigger for additional cuts?

Wheeler: [The debt deal] reduced spending to 2011 levels and permits DoD to get an increase for inflation. So it’s basically a freeze at the 2011 level, plus inflation, which is pretty generous. And of course 2011 was a peak, not a valley. In terms of amounts of money, it is a very fat budget. The problem is the DoD [today] cannot exist on that kind of a budget. DoD can’t even exist on a rapidly increasing budget. Living at the 2011 levels will indeed be painful for the Pentagon, unless a real manager is brought in to make sense of the changes in policy and programs that need to be done. Right now, we don’t have that manager in the form of Leon Panetta.

We have the Super Committee — I spell it s-o-u-p-e-r committee. They will fail. I came to that conclusion by watching them in their public meetings…. All those members on the committee were selected in order for them to take instructions from their leadership, and they will. …

Congress will permit the trigger to be pulled but will be incapable of doing anything after that. The new president will have to be confronted with what to do with it all. The new trigger will be 2013. The Congress will be pointing fingers for a year as well as the presidential candidates, and I fully expect nothing will be done. The whole thing will hang fire for a year.

Antiwar: What did you think of Robert Gates?

Wheeler: I met with him twice at his invitation. I personally like him. Some of things he did were excellent. But remember, he increased the number of programs in the defense acquisition budget rather than decrease them. There are more programs in the acquisition budget than when he came to the Pentagon…. The idea that he canceled 30 programs is baloney. He just put them under different names…. He would make suggestions [about cutting] and then he would do nothing about it … but he had the advantage of understanding they were problems, at least.

Antiwar: What do you think of Leon Panetta?

Wheeler: He’s made it quite clear to the bureaucracy that anything goes and he will do whatever humanly possible to protect the bureaucracy. It goes on. Whoever is elected president in 2012 will be confronted with this mess, and the more we learn about the dimensions of the mess, the more political pressure we’ll see to do something about it. The amount of pressure will remain to be seen.

[Panetta] is a politician in an executive job behaving like a politician and simply doing what he has been instructed to do, which obviously is to make sure Barack Obama is not attacked, convincingly, by Republicans as being anti-defense.

He is protecting Obama’s right flank for the political campaign. He’s doing as he is told, and if Obama is re-elected, if Obama wants to get serious on the defense problem, Panetta will have to be replaced.

Antiwar: For readers who might not be familiar with how the “revolving door” at the Pentagon works, can you describe for us how retired officers work with contractors to proliferate the budget and prolong war overseas?

Wheeler: It starts before [officers] retire. When a lieutenant colonel or a senior field-grade officer is thinking about what he’s going to do when he leaves the Pentagon, and he’s managing a program or a weapon system or some kind of account in the Pentagon, and the friendly man from Boeing or Lockheed walks in the door and [the officer] is thinking about his son’s college expenses and what the hell he is going to do when he retires, he’s not going to burn any bridges with the contractor. And that means a cooperative relationship between the government program manager — whether it be civilian or military — and the contractor. Then they retire — and lo and behold — the contractor offers them a job and they use their contacts with their previous colleagues back at the Pentagon to make sure the program is funded and operated smoothly.

There is a seamless relationship between the contractor and the people in the government who are responsible for managing Pentagon contracts. This is a real pernicious problem that people often don’t pay attention to.

Then there’s the congressional staffer who gets a job on the Armed Services Committee and then they get a job in the Pentagon as an assistant secretary or something like that. If you want a job in the Pentagon, you’re not going to treat the Pentagon roughly in hearings. Then you’re all on the same team. And a real “good” staffer is someone who gets offered a job in the Pentagon.

Those kinds of job transfers should be prohibited. They won’t do that, though. That would derail a lot of relationships — a lot of relationships. But it is an extremely pernicious problem; you cannot reform the Pentagon unless you in a very, very tough way reform the revolving-door problem. If you don’t fix this problem, you won’t fix anything. It’s not the only thing that needs to be done, but it is one of those mandatory first steps.

Antiwar: Will anyone outside this racket be able to break this cycle and effect change?

Wheeler: A serious secretary of defense could do a lot of it. He could refuse to hire people from Capitol Hill. He could require promises from assistant secretaries and political appointees that they won’t touch jobs with industry when they leave, and he could enforce that without loopholes. Obama promised that with the lobbyist ban [at the Pentagon] but then tore a big hole in it by offering waivers.

Antiwar: How do you feel about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Wheeler: I wrote an essay in January 2003 about the week that Congress passed George Bush’s authorization to go to war in Iraq. I called it the “Week of Shame” [.pdf]. I think they [the wars] were a complete disaster no matter how you look at them. The one good thing to come out of this is perhaps a renewal of the American sense of disgust with doing these kinds of things internationally. Because they have been such a disaster, hopefully the political atmosphere has been ruined for trying to do it again. Taking care of the troops is certainly a different issue, and that needs to be done, but we did those people no honor by asking them to do these things and to fight these foolish wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ll be paying the bill for brain trauma and a long list of real problems for decades to come, and we should be paying those bills.

Antiwar: After years in this watchdog business, it must be hard not to get cynical and despondent.

Wheeler: It is hard not to be cynical and it is hard not to be frustrated with people who say things like “Well, it can’t be that bad” or say things like “This doesn’t solve the entire problem, but it’s a step in the right direction,” and then they walk away from it. Yeah, I find that really frustrating.

Antiwar: Why not walk away too?

Wheeler: It’s not in the DNA.

Follow Kelley Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.