BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Winslow Wheeler, author of "The Wastrels of Defense," where`d you get that title? And is it wastrels?
WINSLOW WHEELER, AUTHOR, "THE WASTRELS OF DEFENSE": Yes. I actually thought of it in the mid-`80s, when I wrote a little piece about the Senate Armed Services Committee and what it was doing to military construction authorizations. And I was paging through the dictionary, and I found that word. And it`s sort of an archaic word, but it fit my conception of what they were up to. It`s -- different dictionaries say it means different things, but it`s basically a wasteful, foolish person, somebody who doesn`t fulfill his own potential.
LAMB: Who is that?
WHEELER: Congress. They have duties and lots of intelligent, hard-working people over there, but the end result is pretty disappointing.
LAMB: How many years did you work for the United States government in some way or another?
WHEELER: I started in November of `71 with Jacob Javits, a liberal Republican from New York. I was from New York, and I was lucky. I was wandering the halls with resumes, and I got the dream job. I got a research assistant`s job for work on the Foreign Relations Committee. I worked for him for 10 years, then I worked for Nancy Kassebaum from Kansas, Republican. Last two years with her, I was simultaneously employed on the personal staff of David Pryor, a Democrat from Arkansas.
The clerk at the disbursing office told me that when I took my forms over there for that, that I was the first ever staffer to work simultaneously for members from different parties on their personal staffs. I did that for two years.
I bailed out of Congress -- I got a little sick of it -- and went to the General Accounting Office -- they changed the name -- for nine years, got a little frustrated with the bureaucracy there and the management attitude towards research, and had a chance to go back to the Senate, on the Senate Budget Committee staff, with Pete Domenici from New Mexico, a Republican.
LAMB: Who`s Spartacus?
WHEELER: I adopted that pseudonym when I was asked to write a chapter for an anthology. A friend of mine, an active duty Army major named Don Vandergriff (ph), wrote a -- edited an anthology on warfare issues, and he asked me to write a chapter about how Congress budgets for defense. And getting through it, I realized what I was writing would get me in trouble. I was naming names and describing actions that the members wouldn`t appreciate. So I thought about it, and rather than "anonymous" or something like that, a rebellious Roman slave seemed to fit my conception of where I was.
LAMB: Where were you working then?
WHEELER: Senate Budget Committee.
LAMB: What year?
WHEELER: In 1999. The chapter was -- the book was published with Spartacus as the pseudonym author. It didn`t cause much of a stir. It was one of those books I thought was important, but never got much above 50,000 on the Amazon, you know, book-selling count. And I started writing other stuff and using that pseudonym.
The staff director, who I talk about a little bit in the preface of that book, in the Budget Committee had a requirement for staff travel. You can go anywhere that`s related to your job. There`s two requirements. The committee is not going to pay for it. You need to find somebody else to pay for it. It has to also comply with Senate ethics rules. He was strict about that. And after you returned from your trip, you need to write a trip report, And you`re not going on any more trips until I have that trip report on my desk.
And I went to various Army facilities, and I would also send them questions in advance, so that they wouldn`t feel like I was engaged in some kind of gotcha exercise. And I would write reports on what I found. And a lot of these reports are pretty critical of problems and why they existed, and the decline of training, unreadiness of major combat units, performance deficiencies in aircraft. And Bill Hoagland (ph), the staff director at the Budget Committee, and I knew that the Republican members and the Democratic members of the committee wouldn`t appreciate these reports being associated with the committee staff. And so I started using -- I started distributing them on the Internet through the help of some other friends and used the pseudonym. And you can now do a Google on Spartacus and find a bunch of stuff I`ve written.
LAMB: Did Senator Domenici fire you?
WHEELER: No. As my brother puts it, I was invited to resign, ultimately. He told the New Mexico newspapers he fired me. This was after I wrote an essay in January, 2002. It caused a bit of a stir, and the senator complained about it. When it became known who Spartacus was, I asked to speak to Senator Domenici. We met. I explained to him what happened. He said he wanted to think about it. I offered to resign. The next thing I knew, a day or two later, a colleague handed me a New Mexico newspaper. I forget the name of the paper.
LAMB: "Albuquerque Journal"?
WHEELER: Yes -- saying something like, Domenici fires staffer for writing an essay. And I started communicating with the senator through his staff, and I basically said to him, We can make this easy or we can make this hard. If you want to fire me, that`s your right. But there`s -- I have lots of reporters calling me now because of this, and I would prefer the option to resign. But it can be -- this can be hard or this can be easy for you, Senator.
And he reluctantly, I think, decided to let me resign. He called me up one morning in my office, and it was a jovial conversation. He said -- he started the conversation saying, If I had wanted to fire you, I would have told you first. And we had a friendly, short conversation, and I made it clear to him I`ll resign promptly and I will not encourage newspaper articles about what happened. And I left in June, 2002. And then I started up with the Center for Defense Information in September and started writing that book September, 2002.
LAMB: A couple of things. When I read your book, I kept saying after every chapter -- and you can correct me if I`m wrong, Boy, this guy is angry. And then secondly, what is the Naval Institute Press doing publishing this book?
WHEELER: You thought I was angry, you should have seen the first draft. One of the exercises I go through in writing that was a toning-down exercise, taking out the nasty adjectives and trying to relate facts and then characterize them in a way I thought appropriate without getting -- without engaging in the kind of nastiness that we see an awful lot of in politics today. Some of that stuff is harsh in there, but I think it`s appropriate.
LAMB: Let me stop you there. Give us an example of one of the harsher things that you do in this book.
WHEELER: Calling Senator John McCain an enabler of pork.
LAMB: An enabler of pork?
LAMB: Actually, after this morning -- this is being recorded in late September, but I got on the Web site of Senator McCain and got a statement from him on September the 20th. And I just -- I wanted to read it to you because I thought maybe it would give you a chance to comment on it. It says -- this is about -- He says, "Mr. President, I support passage of fiscal year 2005 Military Construction Appropriations Act. This bill provides $10 billion in funding for important military construction. Amazingly, this report contains only 35 earmarks, totaling $44.7 million, which is significantly less than the approximately $80 million in unauthorized earmarks contained in last year`s appropriations bill."
He goes on to call it a clean bill. He congratulates the chairman, Senator Hutchinson, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, and Senator Feinstein, the ranking member of the subcommittee, on and on. And he says it`s $44.7 million, down from $80 million. What do you hear -- what are all the things we`re hearing here, earmarks, the Military Construction Appropriations Act, and Senator McCain congratulating them.
WHEELER: We can talk about it at some point. He conveys the impression that things are getting better as far as pork and congressional defense authorizations and appropriations bills. That`s not correct. He counted himself $8.9 billion in the DoD appropriations bill for the other 95 percent of the Defense Department, beyond the military construction budget. That`s a world record. That`s the most they`ve ever jammed into a DoD appropriations -- Department of Defense appropriations bill. And that`s his count.
LAMB: That`s $80 billion?
WHEELER: No, no, $8.9 billion.
LAMB: I`m sorry. All right. But let me stop -- define what pork is.
WHEELER: The public understanding of pork is bad stuff that Congress stuffs into bills, including defense appropriations bills and authorizations bills. That public -- that`s a misunderstanding of the process in what pork really is. There might be some stuff of that $8.9 billion put into the DoD appropriations bill that was a good idea. There`s probably stuff that`s a bad idea. The point is, nobody knows.
The cost of it, short and long-term, hasn`t been assessed by the Congressional Budget Office. There`s been no truly objective analysis of whether that idea or that project or that parking garage, even, is really needed or whether it`s needed more in Alaska or in Rhode Island. There`s no independent assessment whether that thing is a good idea. Some of them are patently, you know, obviously, you know, lousy ideas. Section 81.13, stuffed in the back of the DoD appropriations bill, appropriates about $50 million for museums, a parade ground at a closed military base, stuff like that added. That might be acceptable in peacetime. In wartime, that`s not acceptable behavior, to my way of thinking.
LAMB: Well, take for instance someone listening to this lives way away from here. Lincoln, Nebraska -- I don`t know, pick your small town around the United States, and they`ve just seen an announcement in the newspaper that Senator X announces the building of a museum in the town, federal money. And they -- they don`t -- doesn`t say where it comes from, but here comes $25 million to build something. Isn`t that good for that community?
WHEELER: They`re not getting the whole story. They`re not getting the story of where that $25 million might be spent, if that museum weren`t being built. They`re not getting the story of what`s being tapped in the DoD budget to pay for that. And they`re not being informed about how good DoD pork is in really generating jobs.
One of the things I did for Senator Domenici to try to slow down the pork parade a little bit was to get a GAO study on just how many jobs these projects generated in New Mexico for him. The result was something of a shocker. Many of the projects that he was supporting and urging Senator Stevens and Senator Warner and Senator Thurmond to support, because it helped New Mexico, generated zero jobs in New Mexico. Some of them generated tiny numbers of jobs, 10, 15 jobs.
In some cases, the money was just passing through a corporate facility in New Mexico, on its way somewheres else. The big job generators were the military bases. Those were tens of thousands of people. But a lot of these other projects were tiny. The impression that members of Congress have is these are big deal job generators. If you want to generate jobs, do a roads project, don`t do a military contract.
LAMB: Go back to what you said about Senator McCain being a pork enabler.
LAMB: I mean, he has a Web site, and it lists all the pork of the members, and he gets up in the Senate, as you say, and gives speeches and points fingers. Why is he an enabler, then?
WHEELER: Because he doesn`t do anything. He gives a great speech. He`s got a staffer who counts this stuff. They use consistent criteria. Their criteria are pretty modest, but they`re consistent, at least. So he has a track record in defense and other legislation as to what`s been going on for about -- oh, almost 10 years.
My problem is that after he gives his speech, he sits down, walks away and does nothing. He has the sense and the wisdom to appreciate that this stuff is a bad idea and it`s hurting our military. It`s not just a waste of money, it`s hurting the military. But then he -- in a parliamentary institution specifically designed to let the minority, even one senator, throw the body into legislative agony until he gets some kind of accommodation -- I`m not just talking about filibusters. There`s many things a member of Congress can do to inflict parliamentary pain on a body that is doing these kinds of things until he gets some form of accommodation. He consistently doesn`t do that.
In June, 2002, he came close. He started opposing some projects in a bill. He got whipped. The arguments against him were ludicrous, but they served the very good purpose of exposing just how flimsy the arguments were in favor of these ideas. But then he gave up. He said, I`m going to throw up various parliamentary hurdles to make this real painful for you guys, even though you`ve got the votes. He didn`t keep that promise. He walked away from it.
As a matter of fact, during that process, where he was going through this public exercise of doing the right thing and making threats about, I`m going to inflict this pain, a quiet process was going on that you could only see hints of if you were sitting in the chamber in the public gallery. But as a staffer, I was able to observe it much more closely and understand fully what was going on.
What was going on was that he was being -- he and his staff were being shown all of these amendments, and he was either approving or disapproving them, saying, I don`t -- you know, This one`s OK with me, this one`s not OK with me. In other words, while he was complaining about the process, he was participating in the process. He was culling out amendments that -- in that particular parliamentary situation were non-germane. They were in a filibuster -- excuse me -- they were in a cloture situation. Other times on other bills, he would call out amendments that transgressed the jurisdiction of the -- of his committee, the Commerce Committee. And those would get called out, but all the rest would continue.
LAMB: You`re using language that might be confusing. For instance, what`s non-germane mean?
WHEELER: When the -- when somebody threatens to filibuster to prolong proceedings simply by talking, the Senate can shut that up by going through a process of what`s called a cloture motion. If 60 senators approve that motion, debate is limited to 30 hours and amendments can only be germane. What that means, that the amendment can only address a subject matter already in the bill.
And in that particular situation, in July, 2002, McCain had the good sense to ask the parliamentarian, Is this amendment germane, when a porky, non-germane amendment was being proposed. And the parliamentarian is a staffer who makes these kinds of official adjudications, and so they were calling out the amendments that added pork to new subject matters to the bill. The ones that were adding pork in old subject matters of the bill proceeded.
LAMB: All right. You never have been to Washington. You`re interested in how your money is being spent. You`re watching C-SPAN`s coverage of the Senate and the House. What are they not seeing? And how if -- you`re watching and they`re not seeing -- how can they find out, for instance, about pork items?
WHEELER: Yes. It`s -- what C-SPAN does I think is very important. In the `80s, there was a lot of debate in Congress about whether it would make things worse or better to have the proceedings televised. And in a sense, it made things worse because there`s lots more sort of posturing and a lot less debate than there used to be.
But watching the floor proceedings is a great place to start. You can see Senator McCain give his speech detailing these items and characterize them, I think, you know, properly. Then you`ll see what doesn`t happen. You`ll see him sit down. Nobody else engages him. Nobody else says, Well, my -- you know, my amendment is too a good idea, and here`s why. They pass over it and move on to the next senator who`s got a prepared speech and wants to read it off.
So in a sense, you`ve got to listen to what is being said and then pay attention to what`s not being said. Even if you`re not, you know, skilled in all this complex parliamentary gobbledygook, if you see a member say something is a terrible idea and something should be done about it and then sit down and walk away, you`re seeing what you understand as somebody who`s declaring themselves, saying it`s unacceptable, and then doing nothing about it.
LAMB: Is it possible to get a list, as the years go on, of where the pork is? And how soon can you get it after it`s passed?
WHEELER: Best place to go is John McCain`s Web site. They stopped listing the speeches on older bills, but you can go there and get his speeches on this year or last year`s and the year before`s various bills, defense and otherwise. And go to the "pork busters" box on the upper right-hand corner of his Web site and read on. You`ll see in some of those speeches long lists, page after page of the several hundred items in a bill that nobody really knows what they are, but they`re being added because some member wants them.
LAMB: Do the members, when they vote on the floor of the Senate, know they`re voting on all these?
WHEELER: No. They`re adopted by a voice vote, without members being recorded one way or the other. A voice vote is -- there could be five members in the chamber, and the presiding officer says, Those in favor, say aye, and you hear a mumble, And those opposed say no, and you hear a low -- you hear silence or you know, one or two saying, you know, no. And that`s it. They`re not described. They`re certainly not debated.
My experience is that members who have their own amendments, even their staff often don`t fully comprehend what their -- what their thing is. You`ll see letters that the members send to the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and in the case of military pork, the authorization committee chairman, Warner and ranking member Senator Levin. And these letters will go on for pages and pages, and they`ll have 20, 50 to 100 items in them, each one described in a paragraph maybe a third or half a page long. Those descriptions are usually scripted by the manufacturer or the Defense Department project manager, who`s stuffing it into the budget behind the secretary of defense`s back.
Not all staffers even understand what these things really are. The vast majority don`t understand the arguments against the item. They don`t call up CBO or CRS or GAO, where there`s...
LAMB: Stop. CBO?
WHEELER: I`m sorry. Congressional Budget Office. They can estimate the cost of a project.
LAMB: Works for Congress?
WHEELER: They`re Congress`s official budget office.
WHEELER: Congressional Research Service. They`re quite non-political. There are experts up there on tactical aviation, on naval systems, on war powers legislation.
LAMB: And you tell us that there are what, 700 people that do that?
WHEELER: Yes. About -- who are specifically tasked to those -- that job of helping members of Congress understand legislation.
LAMB: And you worked for GAO, and you said it`s -- you criticize them, saying there`s too much careerism in GAO.
LAMB: That`s the General Accounting Office. What does that mean? Who are they? How many people there?
WHEELER: I worked there for nine years. When I started there, there were about 5,000 GAO employees. Congress, when it decided to reduce staff in `92, `93, `94, went through an exercise where GAO absorbed most of those cuts, and it went down to about 3,200.
My experience in GAO is that when you pick up a GAO report, you don`t know what you have. You need to look carefully not at the content of the report, but at the section that describes their methodology. If their description of the methodology for their study is about page long and basically says, Senator or Congressman X asked us to do this, we went to the following places, we started on this date, we ended on this date, we spoke to these officials, and that was our methodology, my advice is to fold it up, put it on the table and go read something else.
WHEELER: Because they basically went out and, in the case of Defense Department issues, spoke to project managers and collected documents. The documents they got were the ones that DoD permitted them to have. GAO has got statutory authority to get any document it pleases, and they had the ability to legally demand the documents. In Defense Department subjects, that almost never happens.
The division I worked for is not the defense division, it was the program evaluation methodology division. We had a small defense group of about half a dozen people. And when we had problems on documents, our leadership, our managers permitted us to get surly with the Department of Defense and say, We want these documents, and we`re not going to go away until you give them to us.
That`s not the ethic in the rest of the building. The ethic in the rest of the building, when I was there, was, We want to have a good relationship with the agency. And if we get surly with them, if we ask for things they don`t want to give us, we won`t have a good relationship with them. And they`ll give us even less. So we want to cooperate with them.
LAMB: Well, help me out here. The -- David Walker, who runs that organization, a 15-year appointment. They basically can`t fire him.
LAMB: Why would they care? I mean, they`ve got independence.
WHEELER: I left just before he came. That was about -- about eight years ago. The people I know who are still there tell me that things haven`t changed very much. But I can speak best to the period when I was there. And the reports I see coming out on defense subjects really haven`t changed. Some of them are good, some of them are not good. Some of them are thorough and comprehensive and look like somebody did some pretty good work. Sometimes, they`re basically what smart program managers told them, giving them a few bones, making them think they`ve cracked the case. And that`s the report.
LAMB: What`s -- but underlying all of your book is something -- and I want to get to -- is there fear involved in this? Is there money involved in all this? What is motivating people -- you say -- I`ll read -- "America`s constitutional checks and balances, the safeguards placed to protect liberty, to promote good government and to provide for and maintain American armed forces are failing. They are failing because today`s politicians want them to, and too many in the press and electorate seem OK with that."
LAMB: Why would politicians want the checks and balances to fail?
WHEELER: They can look better that way.
LAMB: Why do they want to -- I don`t -- …pressing you, but why do they want to look better?
WHEELER: I think it boils down to a sense of self. It expresses itself in lots of ways -- careerism, seeking political advantage at every opportunity, looking for the next step in your career, the next way that you could become more important and more influential, and...
LAMB: To what end?
WHEELER: To the end of self-advancement.
LAMB: Did you ever feel that way in your 31 years working for four senators and the GAO?
WHEELER: Yes, lots of times. The ethic of, "I can`t do that, even though I acknowledge it`s the right thing to do, because circumstances aren`t good, it`ll be too tough, they`ll give me hell, I understand what you`re saying, I understand that if things were better, we should be doing this, but we`re not going to do it."
LAMB: You know, this book, as I said earlier, is published by the Naval Institute Press. And the reason I mention that is because in the back of the book, it says, "It`s the book-publishing arm of the U.S. Naval Institute, a private non-profit membership society, and it started at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland."
Why would the U.S. Naval Institute Press want you to air all this dirty linen?
WHEELER: I can`t answer for them. My understanding is that I talk in that book about how Congress operates, in some respects, how the Defense Department operates and how GAO operates and what`s going on beneath the surface, beneath the way American journalism describes Congress. I think I talk about nagging doubts that a lot of people, voters, people politically interested, have about what`s going on but haven`t found an explanation for and haven`t seen described at the level I try to describe them.
If I were a journalist or a professor teaching political science in a college or university, there`s no way I could have written that book. I think it`s -- I would like to think it`s more than a kiss-and-tell book. I think I try to describe the processes and what`s going on beneath the surface that they don`t want you to know about.
LAMB: If people pick up your book and look on the back, and I`m trying to find out where you`re coming from here. First of all, they heard Senator Javits a liberal, Senator Kassebaum, a Midwesterner, married to Harold Baker now, Senator Pryor, a Democrat, what, a centrist?
WHEELER: Mostly on the real domestic issues. On defense, I thought he had a pretty independent mind.
LAMB: And then Senator Domenici, a Republican? What...
WHEELER: Mainstream Republican.
LAMB: Mainstream Republican from New Mexico. You work for the Center for Defense Information. I went on the Web site and found the board of advisors, and there`s one name -- two names on there that anybody on the right reads it would want to know why. Paul Newman and John -- Joanne Woodward, his wife.
LAMB: And -- but then you go up to the top and you find Anthony Zinni. Help us understand, though, how -- what bedfellows are here in this process and where are you coming from.
WHEELER: I`ve never met Paul Newman or his wife. I never received, even sensed any hint from the people of CDI that they would like me to say X, Y or Z. I -- if you -- if you got them to fess up who they`re going to vote for this election, I bet you the vast majority will vote for Kerry or maybe not vote at all.
LAMB: Of course, they`ve voted by the time people hear this.
LAMB: And election is over.
WHEELER: But I never had any sense that we -- we want you to say the following things, Winslow. One of the senators I talk about in there, Dale Bumpers from Arkansas, was a former president of CDI. I didn`t take it out. That was one of the incidences from that anthology I wrote as my first Spartacus exercise, and I left it in the chapter that steals all the material from my own anthology chapter. Didn`t hear a peep from them.
I wrote a -- a commentary for "Government Executive" magazine, and it was about congressional porking in the form of VIP transports, jets for generals and, what a coincidence, members of Congress, to fly around in. I talked about an incident where General Zinni was the motivating factor behind getting one of those jets. I thought that was a pretty bad decision on his part, and I said so in the commentary. Never heard a peep.
LAMB: Do you know him?
WHEELER: I never met him.
LAMB: So the Center for Defense Information is supported by whose money?
WHEELER: They have a list of contributors. I really don`t know who they are except that they refused to accept money from defense contractors.
LAMB: Do they want to shut -- these people want to shut the Defense Department down?
LAMB: Are you a hawk or a dove? You have a chapter in here against the Iraq war.
WHEELER: Yeah. I -- I don`t feel comfortable with either of those terms. War is a necessity. You have to fight for things that are threatened and that you value. I have real problems with this war, not just with -- with the way it was initiated, but the way it is being fought. I`m extremely happy to see this country react to the soldiers in the field the way they are, rather than the way we did in Vietnam. It`s hard to, you know, put in a sentence where I am on these kinds of things, but I think that I like to have a sense of trying to look at the facts of a situation -- one of the reasons I like C-SPAN is because you have -- you`re the primary sources. I don`t feel comfortable reading articles about reports I can`t go find on the Internet and read the actual report myself.
LAMB: But you say for a moment, though, that we may have done harm by televising the Senate, and what you see is not what you get.
WHEELER: You have to balance two things. You don`t see debates in the United States Senate anymore. You see senators marching down on the Senate floor, most of the time speaking from notes or word-for-word text. Only in the rarest instances are those notes prepared by the member himself. They`ll come down to the chamber floor, hang around, wait for their turn, give their statement, finish and leave. That`s not the way it was done when I started there in the `70s.
LAMB: `71 was your first year?
WHEELER: Yes, sir.
LAMB: Jacob Javits your first boss.
WHEELER: Yes. He was a real good mentor. I mean, he did not take me on his protege or anything of the sort. I was, you know, a lowly guy on his staff. But just observing him and working with him when I got more senior in his staff was a real education for me.
LAMB: You said something that he had...
WHEELER: Can I finish the point?
LAMB: Yes, but I don`t want to forget talking about his code of who could meet with him and who he`d take advice from him. So go ahead.
WHEELER: Sure. He almost never had a prepared text going down there. On rare occasions he would have some points that somebody on his staff might, you know, shove in front of him before he went there. He did his homework. He went home each day with a stack like that, of memos, articles, all kinds of stuff that we thrust at him. And that`s -- the memos, for instance, would come back not just read, but marked up. Don`t want to do that, yes, underlined. He would devour them.
LAMB: Members do that now?
WHEELER: My impression is no. Javits was unique even in his own time. He was -- he had a lot of intellectual horsepower. He was a true workaholic.
LAMB: Talk about the one thing that you mention in there, about his philosophy about how he would deal with …lawyer, outside lawyer.
WHEELER: Oh, yes. He had a rule that I think is a great ideal and should be a Senate rule. If you had a constituent with a problem, that you -- called case work for example, got a problem with Social Security, I`ve got a maid who needs a green card, I`ve got -- I`m a defense contractor and we`re looking for help on this program, they`re a constituent, we`re here to help them if we can. One group that we don`t talk to is lawyers. You can bring the lawyer to the meeting if you want, but if you send us a letter, make sure that you sign it, not the lawyer. Our dealing is with you as a constituent. If you want to pay a lawyer to do this stuff, feel free. That`s your privilege, but we`ll do it for you for free.
We know the Senate system better than most lawyers, so we don`t really know why you want to hire a lawyer to help you out. And we would discourage constituents approaching us with a problem from bothering to have a lawyer, but that was their right. We wouldn`t deal with the lawyer, we would only deal with the constituent.
LAMB: Two senators in your book that get criticized. Senator Ted Stevens, a Republican of Alaska, and Senator Dan Inouye, Democrat of Hawaii. Both of them about 80 years old, been there for years in the Appropriations Committee process. Why are you critical of them?
WHEELER: If you did a word content speech on defense bills -- defense appropriations bills, if you search through the documents -- the bill itself and the committee report, the most frequent proper nouns you`d come across are the nouns Alaska and Hawaii. There`s all kinds of stuff in the defense appropriations bill for those states that don`t belong there. It`s not a question of whether it`s a good or a bad defense idea. Lots of them have nothing to do with defense. Brown tree snake programs for Hawaii. They have a problem with brown tree snakes, and you know, killing off the bird population. But that program does not belong in the defense budget.
LAMB: Yeah, but if you`re out there in Hawaii and Alaska, don`t you just love these guys?
WHEELER: One thing they forget to mention in their press releases is how this stuff is being paid for. If you turn to the back of appropriations bills, defense appropriations bills and look in the so-called general provisions section, one of the thickest sections in the bill, you will find all kinds of strange provisions that say for unobligated (ph) balances, for management improvements, for cost growth in information technology. Take out the following amounts from the following other titles. And you go figure out what that title is, you find that taking the money out of operations and maintenance, procurement, military personnel accounts to pay for brown tree snakes, museums, all kinds of stuff. This is not a couple of million here and there. This is hundreds of millions of dollars.
LAMB: We have sat and listened to hearings where you hear members say that our armed forces in Iraq don`t have kevlar vests and things like that, and are not provided in the sides -- the humvees aren`t reinforced and all this stuff. Is that fair? I mean, is...
WHEELER: It`s accurate.
LAMB: But is the money going to this other stuff? Is there enough of it going to other stuff that we`d be able to take care of our armed forces better?
WHEELER: We are doing a lousy job paying for the cost of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The requests from presidents come late. The requests -- when they come late are in insufficient amounts. The supplementals that Congress passes for war expenses usually don`t have all this junk added in. They do that in the basic bill.
However, when you`re tapping the operation and maintenance account for a few billion dollars, because you`re paying for all this other stuff, you`re telling the controller at the Defense Department and the controller at the military services, this is your problem. You need to -- you need to find places where you can cut to pay for this stuff, and some places they can`t cut. They`ve got contractual obligations for procurement and research projects, you can`t cut there.
Congress puts instructions in conference reports, the part that accompanies the text of the bill, which in some cases has the force of law, basically. You can mess around with some of these accounts, but one of the things you can`t mess around with, unless you come back and get specific permission from us, is the stuff we have added. So you can`t take $1 out of that brown tree snake program unless you get Senator Inouye`s permission to do that.
In other words, the controllers are left to effect these reductions in accounts where they have flexibility. In the operation and maintenance account, those accounts often end up being training, depot maintenance, things like that, where they can control the outflow of dollars.
LAMB: You tell the story about this time of year where a process begins. There are Christmas parties, telephone calls come in. You mentioned Santa Claus and all this. Can you retell this?
WHEELER: Right. Yes, this year is going to be exceptional, because there`s a lame-duck session in November, starts shortly after this airs. But basically, from the middle of October or middle of November each year, Congress is in recess until early January. During that period, there`s Christmas parties on the Hill. The armed services have celebrations, they invite staffers to. Offices are -- have short hours, 9:00 to 5:00. Some of them only 10:00 to 4:00. People take vacations. It`s a down time.
After the holidays, after all the New Year`s Eve and Christmas parties, for, you know, contractors, lots of parties...
LAMB: Who pays for those?
WHEELER: Contractors have real nice parties. They`ll have a big Christmas party at the Hyatt Regency right around the corner from here. There will be champagne and roast beef, frog legs, you know, all kinds of stuff.
LAMB: Paid for by a company?
WHEELER: It`s paid for out of their -- I guess their -- that`s part of their overhead.
LAMB: For a manufacturer of defense.
WHEELER: Boeing, for example. Lockheed, for example. All of them do it. Don`t pick on just one, they all do it. Party season ends early January, so -- and staffers are getting back to, you know, full-time hours and figuring out, you know, so what`s going to happen this year? The phone starts ringing. Sometimes it`s the commander of a military facility. Sometimes it`s a university professor. Sometimes it`s the nice man from Boeing or Lockheed.
LAMB: Do you mean that, nice man, I mean, do you mean that seriously?
WHEELER: Sometimes they`re women.
LAMB: I mean, either way they`re nice people?
WHEELER: Oh, they`re very nice. They`re polite. I`m not trying to infer that they`re being -- acting unethically. They`re polite. They`re lobbyists. And we have got a problem with this project, we`ve got this -- you know, idea that we`d like the senator`s support on.
The process starts over the phone. And what they`re looking for is the -- is money to start a new project, or money to increase an existing project.
If you know the voice, know the guy or the woman, if you know the project, even if you don`t know the project in some staffs, but it`s an ongoing one, you don`t need to go much further than the phone conversation. You arrange to get some materials from them. You take down some data and costs and what exactly it is. And it goes on to what I used to call in Domenici`s office the pork list. These calls would generate -- I would keep tabs. It was just a Word Perfect table. The table had -- it would start with a set of rows. By the time we were finished in June, there would be 80 to 100 items, and it would be things -- information technology programs, medical research, all manner of stuff.
We would collect material on it. The staffer on Domenici`s personal staff, she -- one of the later ones would try hard to understand just what these things were. Virtually all of them would make the grade to get on the list. There were rare cases of ones that this one is, you know, just doesn`t feel right, we`re not going to put it on the list.
But this list would then get translated into a letter, first to Senator Warner at the Armed Services Committee. Dear John, I have the following priorities for New Mexico for this upcoming fiscal year. I`d certainly appreciate your support. And this letter would go on for 20 or 30 pages.
LAMB: How much of a difference would it make in this whole process if the company that`s asking for something has given a contribution?
WHEELER: In my experience, the rules on contributions in the Senate staff are followed pretty strictly. There`s two people on a personal staff that you can even talk to about a contribution. If a lobbyist started talking to me about a contribution, I start killing the project right there.
LAMB: That`s not what I`m getting at. I`m getting at whether the senator knows whether X, Y, Z Corporation is giving him the limit or has bundled a lot of money and given it to the campaign. When the eventual list goes out, does it make any difference that somebody has helped in the campaign?
WHEELER: I don`t have complete -- I never had complete visibility into that process, but I`ll tell you this. Whether a contribution was made or not would be noticed. In New York, when I worked for Senator Javits, it was always noticed whether Grumman, Fairchild and GE and Bell and Buffalo would make a contribution, and to the extent we were able to find out how it compared to the contribution being made to the opposition.
LAMB: Well, you have got a footnote, though, it`s more relevant to today in here, of Senator Stevens going to Seattle for a fund-raiser, Boeing`s there, in the middle of the controversy on 767s and the tankers and whether they should be leased or bought. And you say he collected $22,000 when he got there, but he said he didn`t go there until he already made a decision. What`s that -- I mean, why did you put that in there?
WHEELER: Because it`s part of his -- it`s part of the process. His defense that there`s nothing fishy going on about that contribution was that they gave me the money after I decided to support the tankers. That`s a meaningless distinction. I find it perfectly believable that Boeing and Stevens talked about the tankers and how to finance them without a contribution being breathed about. Both sides, in my understanding of how the system works, would have lots of presence of mind that a contribution is going to be made. But they would not be so crass as to talk about it in those circumstances. It would occur, and it would occur later on in the process, to put a time interval, you know, between the act and the deed.
LAMB: It`s all legal by the way, right?
WHEELER: Oh, sure, absolutely.
LAMB: Let me jump to another thing, because you also described this in your book, that the secretary of defense, you say, tells commanders around the country they can`t call senators for items, but you suggest they get around that somehow.
WHEELER: Sure. Base commanders are told not to initiate conversations with members of Congress for goodies for their base. New gates, new hangars, new pipelines, new roads, whatever. In those cases, most of the time -- not all the time, but most of the time -- the staffer initiates the conversation. To get around that, you know, minor inhibition.
LAMB: Explain how that happens.
WHEELER: The staffer on Senator Domenici`s personal staff picks up the phone and calls the base commander at Kirtland in Albuquerque. I want to talk about what your needs are for military construction this year. Please put the colonel on -- you know, get me the colonel, ask him to call me. You know, and we`ll talk about the projects you`re looking for this year.
LAMB: So let`s say the colonel has something he wants, a new runway or something like that, or whatever, I mean, a new hangar.
WHEELER: New -- sometimes these are a good idea. Sometimes they`re repaving the surface so the foreign objects don`t, you know, ….doesn`t get into jet engines and ruin them.
LAMB: But here is the point, though. If you talk -- if you`re the staffer calling the commander and the commander says, I want X, Y, Z, does the secretary of defense or the secretary of the Army or the chief of staff of the Army have anything to say whether or not that commander gets that?
WHEELER: No. The way the system works, most pork begins and ends with the Defense Department. Even if it`s a contractor calling you to increase by $20 million the research budget for the airborne laser, a missile defense program, that contractor has almost certainly been talking to the project manager at Kirtland Air Force base for that project. How much do you not get from OMB this year? How much more can you burn reasonably this year? If we asked Senator Domenici for $20 million, is -- you know, is that reasonable? Yes, that sounds good.
And so that will go on our list. It will go through a process. It will get into our letter to the Armed Services Committee and to the Appropriations Committee.
The way they -- they get so many of these requests, you know, you can`t possibly pay for all of them. They need some way to figure out which ones to say yes to and which ones to say no to. They need to figure out a way that won`t -- sorry, I was going to use the wrong language, won`t irritate the member who is asking. It`s a very simple process.
They call DOD. They don`t call Rumsfeld, they don`t call the controller, they call the project manager for the airborne laser. The same guy who spoke to the Boeing lobbyists worked out how much is reasonable this year. That`s -- the committee staff will basically call him and say, Domenici wants $20 million more for airborne laser, can you use that money? The answer is yes. The circle is completed.
LAMB: How often do members -- and you say there are 30,000 people who work on Capitol Hill -- how often do they go to work for Boeing or Lockheed Martin or one of these companies, to do the kind of work that you`re talking about?
WHEELER: In defense circles, the prize jobs are not with -- when you leave the Hill, are not with the contractors. Some people go there, but that`s not where the flow is. The flow is -- the status jobs that staffers seek to get are in the Defense Department. And there are no -- there are revolving door inhibitions that take about 30 seconds to get around when you go to the contractors. There are no inhibitions to the Defense Department. At one level, you might think, well, what`s the problem with that? People should go work for the Defense Department. It`s actually a very pernicious process, and if Congress was serious about revolving door issues, they would -- they would address the revolving door to the Pentagon.
There`s two problems. One is that lots of staffers are eager to advance their career. If their ambition is go be a big deal at the Defense Department, you don`t want to -- there`s that word going in my head again -- you don`t want to get them angry at you. You don`t want to be causing so many problems for their programs that you have become a pain in the butt. You want to be a member of the team. That means that your oversight of the cost growth for the F-18 and the degradation of its range performance and the actual measurement of its radar cross-section, you don`t want to get too nasty about those things. Because the Navy`s not going to want to have any part of you if you`re not a team member.
LAMB: Unfortunately, we`re almost out of time.
LAMB: Your hometown?
WHEELER: Irvington, New York.
LAMB: School that you went to, college?
WHEELER: Union College in Schenectady.
LAMB: Does this -- is what you`re doing hard to do? Would you call yourself courageous?
WHEELER: No. I made a decision when I wrote my essay that got me into trouble in January 2002. When I saw that, I said this isn`t going to cause me a problem. And I decided to go ahead. I was qualified to retire. I was angry enough about Congress` atrocious performance after 9/11 that I felt that something had to be said about it.
LAMB: We didn`t even scratch the surface, but I do want to ask about this cover on your book. You got a little pig up here at the top of the Capitol. Where did you get this?
WHEELER: The design is my wife`s idea. Judy had the idea of the Capitol dome, and that`s the wind vane from our house in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. My son and I took a day, we drove out to West Virginia to the house, took electronic images of the prancing pig. And then we went to Capitol Hill and walked around getting images of the dome, and the Naval Institute Press liked it. And they put together the images in the best possible way, and there it is.
LAMB: Winslow T. Wheeler has been our guest. This is the cover of the book, "The Wastrels of Defense: How Congress Sabotages U.S. Security." Thirty-one years in government. We thank you very much.
WHEELER: Thank you very much.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2004. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.