By DANA LIEBELSON
If you've been following POGO’s blog, you know that defense expert Winslow Wheeler has recently joined our staff. Wheeler, who has decades of experience shedding light on Pentagon waste, is a breath of fresh air in a world that constantly claims more money equals more defense. We chatted with Wheeler about reform, his bipartisan political experience, and how—despite the fact that his investigations make war-mongers quake in their boots—he’s still a “big softie.” Be sure to stay tuned for our podcast discussing more of his experiences!
POGO: Why do you think your work is a good fit with POGO's?
Winslow Wheeler: I have been closely watching POGO’s extraordinary work for years and years. Even back in the 1980s I worked closely with Dina Rasor’s Project on Military Procurement [the first incarnation of POGO]. POGO is unique in the Washington, DC scene for its directness and willingness to call the shots as they lay, rather than to shave down the data to fit the weekly twists and turns of what sounds “reasonable” to the political apparatchiks that dominate Congress and think tanks. I am flattered that such a super organization would welcome me and the Center for Defense Information and the Straus Military Reform Project.
The subject area that I have been working on for the last four decades is military reform. Sadly, in the past era, we have gone significantly backwards: more money has bought less defense; the wars have been a catastrophe for the nation and the military services, and Congress has sharpened its talent for incremental steps that appear to go forward but in truth are steps backward. We all have lots of work to do.
POGO: You were the first and last professional to work on the personal staffs of a Democrat and a Republican at the same time—what (if any) difference did you see in the two parties handle defense?
WW: The Republican and Democrat I worked simultaneously for (Senators Nancy L. Kassebaum, R-KS, and David Pryor, D-AR) were unique for their willingness to put national defense reform ahead of party foolishness; they also had a personal generosity of spirit that made sharing one nettlesome staffer a practical possibility. Their personality profiles have been exterminated on Capitol Hill today, as the Republicans—with only the rarest exceptions like Sen. Tom Coburn, (R-OK)—busy themselves pretending that more money means a better defense and that anyone urging budget restraint is worse than a fool. The Democrats—except for most of the Progressives and a teeny-tiny number of moderates—have fallen for the gag and cower in the corner, thinking that going along with more money for the Pentagon, spent wantonly, will protect them from further political slander. Leon Panetta is a perfect example. He—like many others—is very wrong to think that less money automatically equates with less defense. The military reform movement has been all about a much stronger defense for a lot less money.
POGO: You’ve worked on countless columns, articles and books on the Pentagon—do you have a favorite investigation?
WW: I believe I have learned a little from each investigation I have observed or have been involved in. The most powerful investigator I ever observed and worked with was Col. James Burton, author of The Pentagon Wars, who sacrificed his career, rather than compromise his professional ethics. While I have issues with the Government Accountability Office (GAO), I learned a lot about how to get to the bottom of things in the nine years I worked there, and I also learned how to overcome politicized managers who believed it was best to tell half the truth.
POGO: Right now, what do you think is the most critical defense problem facing taxpayers?
WW: The Washington community needs to understand that less money can mean more effective defense. When we finally break this code, reform will flow like water downhill. The biggest impediment to reform is a system that is concerned only about the flow of money—in the direction of all the participants in our broken system.
POGO: We know that you’re a prominent defense analyst and Pentagon watchdog—is there a fact about yourself that readers wouldn’t expect?
WW: I would like to think that I am a pretty open book, but I am also a big softie inside.
Dana Liebelson is POGO’s Beth Daley Impact Fellow.
Photo by POGO's Pam Rutter.