Winslow Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information. Wheeler is also the mastermind behind a new handbook on national defense issues entitled The Pentagon Labyrinth: 10 Short Essays to Help You Through It. POGO recently had a chance to interview Wheeler about the new book, the revolving door, and defense journalism.
POGO: What's the one passage of the book that you'd ask the Secretary of Defense to read?
Winslow Wheeler: While there are a select number of fundamentally important lessons to draw from The Pentagon Labyrinth, it is an unfortunate attribute of life in Washington, DC for one side to sermonize the audience about fundamentals and for the recipients to immediately accept or reject the homily based on their own personal biases. We reject that approach and would only ask that Secretary Gates, or any prospective reader, turn to the table of contents, and pick a subject area that personally interests or intrigues them. The book is just as digestible read in any such personally preferred order as from Essay #1 through #10. Essay #1, Chuck Spinney’s introduction, is a great place to start, but so is Col. GI Wilson’s #5 on “Careerism,” or Chet Richards’ #6 on assessing strategies. We seek to help readers learn and think about national security issues, rather than to tell them what to think.
POGO: Is there a particular structural reform that would help the Pentagon grapple with problems related to weapons acquisitions? Or is it simply a case of the Pentagon not adhering to its own guidelines?
WW: Congress and multiple blue ribbon commissions over the years have proposed innumerable structural reforms. All—repeat all—of them have failed. The issues the Packard Commission said it would solve in the 1980s are even worse today than they were then. After 25 years under the “reforms” of the Packard-induced Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 (Pub.L. 99-433), costs are higher, deliveries are later, and performance is even more disappointing than they were during the era of the $400 hammer and the $6,700 coffee maker.
Moreover, nothing has changed since the latest effort, the Weapons System Acquisition Reform Act of 2009. Tom Christie’s essay, “Developing, Buying and Fielding Superior Weapon Systems,” explains why and what is needed to leave the problems in the past. Pierre Sprey’s essay, “Evaluating Weapons: Sorting the Good from the Bad,” explains why ignoring the lessons of actual combat and embracing the siren song of the technologists’ fantasy has resulted in weapons designs that the broken acquisition system makes even more unaffordable than they were at the start. Chuck Spinney explains in the introduction how we have evolved a system that abhors knowing what something will actually cost.
The solutions they all suggest are all fundamentally simple, but sometimes the simplest things are very difficult to accomplish and encounter a galaxy of enemies.
POGO: Promotional materials for the book reference “what too many defense journalists are not doing, but should.” Tell us more—what should more journalists be doing?
WW: In his “Penetrating the Pentagon” essay, George Wilson shares some of his experiences from almost 50 years of defense journalism. The insightful reader of this essay will understand why “embedding” is a disaster for journalism, and yet many still vie for such an assignment. Others will see that access to the highest levels of the Pentagon can be helpful in unforeseen ways, or it can lead you to a story you only wish you had written. It is not just in journalism that we all have become too interested in the emoluments rather than the content. That theme runs throughout the book.
POGO: Is there anything a regular citizen can do to help fix these problems?
WW: Chuck Spinney’s introduction ends with that famous quote from Madison about an informed citizenry. Knowledge is the essential precursor to meaningful action. Any citizen who bothers him or herself enough to read this book will know what he or she can do to take a step in the right direction.
POGO: Any comments about the Lucky 13 story?
WW: Well; some things never change. How many Congresses have started with some of the new members immediately breaking their promise to be different from the past? At the start of the 112th Congress, is the answer to that question 112?
Let’s focus instead on which members of Congress, both new and old, who actually do break with the past, demand an auditable Pentagon, put the Pentagon front and center on the deficit reduction table, and eschew the pork/campaign contribution process. Those are the leaders; search them out and help them.
POGO: How does the revolving door between industry and the public sector contribute to the problems identified in Labyrinth?
WW: Andrew Cockburn’s essay, “Follow the Money,” makes the negative lesson of the revolving door too obvious to ignore. At the heart of the Pentagon problem are the human beings who manage their careers to selfish and fundamentally unethical—while legal, for the most part—ends. If we do not encumber corruption, we are encouraging it. The revolving door, in its many forms, is the essential sustenance that keeps today’s business as usual alive and well.
The Pentagon Labyrinth is available for purchase on Amazon.com. You may download the book for free and find more information here. You can meet the authors of The Pentagon Labyrinth at a book launch being held tomorrow, March 2, 2011 at Fort Myer's Officers' Club in Rosslyn, VA. Go here for more information.
Bryan Rahija edits POGO's blog.