Review of Winslow Wheeler’s book on defense spending “The Wastrels of Defense” (article)

Here is Emanuel’s review of Winslow Wheeler’s book on defense spending “The Wastrels of Defense” as it appears on the site of the Center for Defense Information


“Rebels Within the U.S. Federal System ”

Emanuel Pastreich

January 10, 2006


Casually observing the mainstream media in
the United States gives one the impression that conservatives support the
administration of George W. Bush and the Republicans in Congress. Nothing could
be further from the truth. In fact, the most strident and damning attacks on
the “neo-conservatives” come not from “liberals,” but
rather from conservatives themselves. Moreover, although many Americans
foolishly buy into the argument that they should be afraid of “government,”
in reality, those in government have provided the strongest resistance to
corruption and corporate manipulation.

An excellent example of the rebellion
against the present rule of money and privilege in America is Winslow Wheeler.
Like the Democratic senator John Murtha, who recently called for U.S. troops to
be withdrawn from Iraq unconditionally, Wheeler is an insider with strong ties
to the military and the institutional culture that has dominated the U.S. for
the last 40 years who decided things have gone too far and has taken a stand.
He has written at length about the corruption in the military procurement
system, which is so deep that it poses a serious security threat.

Wheeler’s unrelenting investigation of
corruption in government, “Wastrels of Defense: How Congress Sabotages
United States Security,” was published not by “Conspiracy
Planet,” but rather the U.S. Naval Institute, in 2004. Clearly he finds
open support for his radical critique at the very core of the system — the
U.S. Naval Institute dates back to 1873. Wheeler’s writings are valuable
because rather than reflexively dwelling on Republican plots, he pays attention
to systemic problems that reduce government to an exploitative system and make
it possible for special interests to manipulate it at will. He is unsparing in
his criticism of Democrats as well.

Wheeler had thirty years of hands-on
experience in the corridors of Capitol Hill before retiring. In 2002, Wheeler
wrote a highly critical essay about the response of Congress to the 9-11
attacks that he published under the pseudonym “Spartacus.” He
lamented in this essay how senators added US$4 billion in useless
“pork” projects to benefit their own states immediately after the
9/11 attacks. Senator Robert Byrd (whom Wheeler praises elsewhere for his
strong stand against the Second Iraq War) asked for an army museum for his home
of West Virginia and Senator Ted Stevens asked for parking garages in Alaska.
All this happened at the same time that $2.4 billion was taken away from
military training and weapons maintenance. When Wheeler’s identity as the
author of the article was exposed, he was forced by Republican Pete Domenici to
resign. Wheeler now works for the Center for Defense Information.

After leaving a position of considerable
influence, Wheeler tried to document how meaningful oversight has vanished for
military budgets. He does not ignore traditional abuses in the system, but by
probing into the details of politicking surrounding defense issues, he
demonstrates irrefutably that the system is internally damaged.

Winslow Wheeler served as a staff member
for numerous congressmen and in the General Accounting Office for thirty-one
years. From 1996-2002 he was the senior analyst for national defense for the
Republican staff of the Senate budget committee. Wheeler served on the staffs
of Pete Domenici (Republican, New Mexico), Jacob Javits (Republican, New York),
Nancy Kassebaum (Republican, Kansas), and David Pryor (Democrat, Arkansas).

Not only does Wheeler suggest that much of
the spending on defense is meaningless for the protection of the U.S., he
presents countless examples of how projects that have real security value are
undermined or gutted to feed pork projects that enrich their patrons. In
contrast to the overlapping systems of review for military projects that
guarded against abuse twenty years ago, Wheeler paints a bleak picture of a
bureaucratic culture in which military officials, corporate interests, staffers
and would be watchdogs cooperate in perfect harmony, considering meaningful
questions about problems off-limits. Wheeler writes of pork, “What was
once a predictable but part-time activity has become a full-time preoccupation
that permeates Congress’s activities and members’ decision-making processes.
Ironically, this occurs even though there is less selfish benefit to pork than
most members of Congress and their staff think.”

Wheeler describes an attempt within the
powerful Defense Subcommittee on the Senate Appropriations Committee to blame
friendly-fire incidents involving aircraft on pilots in order to avoid
discussing design flaws. The purpose of the subcommittee had become not the
pursuit of truth, but rather the defense of patrons.

With regards to wasteful expenditures in
the defense bill passed after 9-11, Wheeler notes that the culture in Congress
has so degenerated that there was no longer anything odd about the decision of
senators to add massive pork to a defense bill passed in a moment of crisis.
Calculating how to use defense funds to pay for fisheries, gyms, day care
centers and defense systems of marginal utility has become a full-time job for
many Capitol Hill staffers. That process is often more important than trying to
evaluate the merits of proposals. Therefore, even in a pinch, staffers merely
proceeded to do their jobs as they understood them.

Previously, there existed a counterforce to
argue for the greater good when congressmen tried to get projects inserted in
the budget for their states and their corporate supporters. These days, there
is no voice of reason in the room as the budgets are made into fodder for a
re-election campaign. Although Senator John McCain makes speeches against
waste, Wheeler demonstrates that within the legislative process he makes little
effort to counter it.

Wheeler is not merely uncovering personal
venality; he argues that what was once a democratic process in the U.S. is
absolutely dysfunctional. Whereas defense appropriations bills in the 1980s
might have had as many as 200 or 300 pork items, a bill today typically
contains thousands, and only very short explanations of their content that are
rarely read by the lawmakers themselves.

Wheeler describes the bravery of another
era, especially that of Senator Thomas Eagleton, the primary author of the War
Powers resolution of 1973 that limited the ability of the president to wage war
without congressional authority. He concludes that such bravery and integrity
are beyond anything to be found in Washington today.

Of course, the culture in Washington has
become far more amicable than it was back in the 1970s. The capital has more
gourmet restaurants and forms an environment in which deals can be made without
confrontation. Moreover, the process for approving projects has become institutionalized
so that special interests push forth the process while congressmen spend their
days struggling to raise money for campaigns.

In many cases, the damaging pork spending
is not demanded by Congress itself. Instead, spending not included in the original
defense budget is introduced later by contractors and their close allies in the
Department of Defense bureaucracy to avoid scrutiny. The political
confrontation that was so strong forty years ago was exactly what made the
balance of powers work.

Now, senators cultivate close friendships
with generals in the Pentagon, studiously avoiding any decisions that might
affect those relationships. Members of Congress and their staff may do a good
job of presenting a message to voters, but Wheeler describes them as,
“little more than messenger boys for the Department of Defense personnel
who originate and approve the thousands of pork projects congress adds to
defense bills.”

The Secretary of Defense does not control
the process described. If anything, his crime is sitting by as the process of
meaningful procurement falls apart. The cost? Basic training, standard
equipment, spare parts and relevant technology are ignored to the detriment of
military effectiveness. That process has been accelerated by the unquestioning
commitment of Vice President Dick Cheney to “privatization.”

Staffers have become an independent class
that pursues their own interests. The uncontrolled growth of congressional
staff forms a fundamental structural flaw. Wheeler writes that although many
argue that a large staff is necessary to “deal with the complexity of the
modern world,” the growth in staff is found not among expert staff or
research agencies, but rather in personal offices where they have one goal:
“enhancing the member’s profile in Washington.”

Nevertheless, despite his trenchant
critique, a distinct myopia creeps into Wheeler’s writing. Wheeler hesitates to
come to an overarching conclusion about the phenomena he observes as part of a
general breakdown of civil society, citizenship and ideology in the U.S. He
hesitates to take the next step and identify a dysfunctional ruling class that
lays waste to government through its neglect. Why is it that these staffers can
go about their business without a thought to the terrible consequences of
special interests? That essential issue might seem more critical that the
details of how pork is snuck into the budget.

Nor does Wheeler fully flesh out how
corporations force inefficiency onto the government. Of course, the question of
how things fall apart in a society is always tricky. We must ask ourselves how
a culture of intentional amnesia emerged in America that led to Wheeler’s
invaluable book being essentially ignored.

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