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How Both Parties Exploit the Defense Budget

[Editors’ Note: This is the preface from Winslow Wheeler’s vitally important new book The Wastrel’s of Defense. Wheeler, who as a top congressional staffer wrote a series of explosive essays on the Pentagon’s budget under the pen name of “Spartacus,” is scheduled to appear on “60 Minutes” this weekend. Now an analyst at the Center for Defense Information, Wheeler is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s hot new book, Dime’s Worth of Difference. AC/JSC]

Senator Pete V. Domenici (R N.Mex.) didn’t want to make the phone call, but his staff director explained why he had to. Domenici had told the Albuquerque Journal he had fired me,[1] but as his staff director explained that if he didn’t permit me simply to resign I could make life difficult for the senator. Domenici had been angered by an essay I wrote that had been circulated widely on the internet and described in various newspapers and journals, some of them national . But to continue to treat me as he had would only provide more grist for the press to cover.. Over the years, I had become a frequent source to many in the press and in some cases a friend.The senator wouldn’t like what some of them might write about my being fired.

Moreover, the press coverage was not likely to be restricted to the Albuquerque Journal; it could well be in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other national media that had already written about my offending essay. Now they might draw the nation’s attention to my detailed insider’s account of how atrociously the Senate had behaved in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 2001 terror attacks. Examples:

Senators added $4 billion in irrelevant and useless projects (“pork”) for their home states to the defense budget ( e.g., the army museum Senator Robert Byrd (D- WVa.) added for West Virginia; the parking garages Ted Stevens (R- Alaska) put in for Alaska; and the unrequested career development center Domenici himself added for White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico).

The same senators stripped $2.4 billion out the defense bill’s accounts that supported military training, weapons maintenance, spare parts, and other military “readiness” items (just the things soldiers need most ) to help pay for the pork. This was done just as the first American casualties were coming home from the fighting in Afghanistan, some of them in boxes Senator, John McCain (RAriz.) gave an excellent speech railing against all this and then stood quietly by as the Senate voted to add another $387 million in pork to the defense bill. The Senate’s self-described “pork buster” was nothing more than a “pork enabler.”

If the press woke up to what was going on — and Domenici’s firing me could be an alarm bell there could be some real trouble.

Even so, Domenici was reluctant to make the phone call. I had broken just about every unwritten rule for how congressional staff should behave. I had criticized senators by name and in writing which I had done not to obtain advantage for my own senator, (something that was not merely allowed but encouraged) — and I had attacked all political persuasions. I even made Domenici look bad for not doing his job as a Budget Committee leader who should have stood up for rules that, if enforced, would have stopped some of the bad behavior.

I had bitten the hand that fed me, and I had bitten the hand that fed Domenici. By attacking Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, the top ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, I was complicating Domenici’s access to pork for New Mexico. An ill-tempered individual, Stevens doled out pork like candy, but only to well-behaved senators. If Stevens associated my criticism with Domenici, he might take it out on Domenici’s pork, and that might hurt his reputation in New Mexico where he was known as “Saint Pete” for all the federal spending he brought in. That could spell trouble in the November elections.

Despite all this, Domenici was being told he had to call me and eat his words about firing me. This was turning the senate world on its head. Senators don’t eat humble pie; staffers do, especially miscreants like me.

Acknowledging he understood what he hd to do, Domenici picked up the phone and gruffly told his secretary to get me on the line. By the time the phone started ringing, he had adjusted his tone. “If I had really meant to fire you, I would have told you first,” he said in as friendly a voice as he could muster. I responded to Domenici’s peace overture in as friendly a voice as I could: “Hi boss; I appreciate your saying that.” Then, I changed my tone, but only slightly. “I think we understand each other,” I said. “You,ll have my resignation by the end of the month. You won’t read any more in the press about all this if I have anything to say about it.” The call ended as abruptly as it began, with both of us avoiding saying anything that would disrupt the superficially friendly finale to my thirty-one year career on Capitol Hill.

As soon as Domenici hung up, I made some phone calls. I told the ABC news researcher I had decided against an on-the-air interview; I told American Spectator magazine I didn’t want to publish my essay after all. I did not return a call from the New Republic, thereby making sure it would not write anything. Domenici had relented; the parting was going to be amicable.

The engineer of the agreeable parting, the Budget Committee’s Republican Staff Director, G. William (“Bill”) Hoagland, was the man who explained the situation to Domenici before the senator reluctantly made his phone call. Hoagland had also been counseling me.

He was truly the man in the middle. He had feared it would come to this and knew it had when the Washington Post printed an article in which Senator McCain had cleverly made the issue not the Senate,s, and his own, behavior, but mine.[2] McCain complained that I had used a pseudonym, “Spartacus,” when writing the essay and argued it was not “correct journalism” for a reporter to protect my anonymity. Hoagland and I, and almost certainly McCain, knew that in the culture of the US Senate, the outing would have serious consequences for me. In fact, as soon I arrived at work the day the article McCain had inspired appeared, Hoagland told me, “you need to get out of your office; you don’t want to be able to answer your phone. Go home.”

Hoagland had worked for Domenici for twenty years and knew him well; he was sure Domenici would be boiling after reading the Post article. He was right. Even though McCain and Domenici were not friendly and Domenici probably relished the scorn my own essay directed at McCain, the Post article fingered me as the staffer who was criticizing not just McCain but literally scores of senators, all of whom would resent my descriptions of them. Domenici had to find a way to disassociate himself from what his own staffer had done; nothing better for that than a quick and public firing. Hoagland feared Domenici would pick up the phone that very morning to do just that. Hoagland wanted to talk to the senator first and, if he could, change his mind.

Hoagland had a serious problem. This was not the first time I had caused trouble. In the past, I had written various reports and essays using the “Spartacus” pseudonym. Each addressed Congress or the armed forces, handling of the defense budget. The Spartacus studies were controversial; Pentagon spokesmen usually spurned them as “all wrong.” But they were detailed, footnoted, and documented, and the Pentagon’s denials were suspiciously data free and self-serving.

It would have been much easier if the senator had been willing to release my studies as official Budget Committee reports, but that was not in the cards. Domenici was certainly not going to release anything critical of his senate colleagues, Republican or Democrat, and he also had real problems with my criticizing the Pentagon. Domenici carefully nurtured his relationship with top generals and senior civilian administrators there. They were essential facilitators of the pork process that fostered Domenici’s “Saint Pete” image in New Mexico. Critical reports from his Budget Committee staff would put sand, not grease, on the pork skids. He wanted no part of that.

Hoagland knew I was writing these Spartacus reports and essays. Any other staff director on Capitol Hill would have prohibited what I was doing, pseudonym or not. But he believed what I was writing things that needed to be said, and he did nothing to stop me.

But now as “Spartacus” I had pushed things past the limit. The new essay about Congress, post September 11 behavior was long, detailed, and heavily footnoted, like the earlier reports, and it also used some angry rhetoric. It played on the 1939 Frank Capra movie, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (about homespun political heroics in the US Senate) and was titled “Mr. Smith Is Dead.” In the text, senator after senator, regardless of party, ideology, or seniority, was exposed as a hypocrite. The entire Senate Armed Services Committee was termed “The Quintessence of Irrelevance and Self-Protection.” Even President Bush was joined with Senator McCain as a “pork enabler.” The essay’s tone was out of line, but it said things that needed saying. Hoagland believed I should be given a serious talking to, but not a public firing.

When Hoagland met with Domenici to discuss the situation, the senator wanted him to fire me. He refused. It was not in his nature to be argumentative with Domenici, but Hoagland’s own sense of decency told him Domenici’s bidding was too much. Instead, he suggested a compromise: keep the staffer on for a few months, and then let him step down. Domenici was adamant; I was too far out of line. If Hoagland could engineer a quiet resignation, OK, but it had to be soon, not some months off.

After a short hiatus, I did resign, and the press hardly noticed. Senators Domenici, McCain, Stevens, and others went on with business as usual. I found a new job with a Washington think tank, the Center for Defense Information, and wrote this book.

I have described here the “highlights” of my last days as a US Senate staffer because they show what makes people tick on Capitol Hill at the start of the twenty-first century.

When I wrote the essay “Mr. Smith Is Dead” in January, 2002, I knew it would cause a problem. I made a conscious decision to detail the atrocious behavior in Congress in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, in the hope that public exposure would cause some elected member to exercise his or her conscience and take up arms parliamentary ones against business as usual. My hope was not realized. The Senate’s behavior, and that of the House of Representatives, did not improve; it worsened.

For more than thirty-one years, I have watched Congress evolve into a place where ambition and partisanship reign supreme, where members care little for substance and most for appearances.

The effect on our national security may not yet be apparent to most Americans, but it is alarming. Congress is not just dithering with national security — it is trashing it. The military effectiveness American forces have shown in two wars against Iraq is not because of, but despite, Congress, work. U.S. armed forces are not supported at the level most Americans have been led to expect. The leadership in Congress and in the Pentagon work to pursue personal and career agendas, not national security.

WINSLOW T. WHEELER is a visiting senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information. He contributed an essay on the defense budget to CounterPunch’s new book: Dime’s Worth of Difference. Wheeler’s book, “The Wastrels of Defense: How Congress Sabotages U.S. Security,” is published by the Naval Institute Press in October.

Notes

[1] Michael Coleman, “Domenici Staffer Fired over Essay,” Albuquerque Journal, 19 May 2002.

[2] Howard Kurtz, “McCain, Rising Up against Spartacus,,” Washington Post, 13 May 2002, C-1.

 

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Winslow T. Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight.  He spent 31 years working for the Government Accountability Office and both Republican and Democratic Senators on national security issues.

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