Spartacus was getting a little choked up. For 30 years he had battled the profligate spending of the military colossus across the river. He had tried with limited success to shame legislators over their pork-barrel ways. He had taken on the F-35 fighter, the Pentagon’s costliest weapons program, and fought to save the A-10 Warthog attack jet, which was relatively cheap but Air Force brass wanted to retire.
When he couldn’t put his own name on his blistering reports, he wrote under the pen name of the famed leader of the Roman slave rebellion. Everyone knew it was him anyway.
Winslow Wheeler, 68, was a legend and now he was retiring. One evening recently he stood in a small conference room in downtown Washington, surrounded by gray-haired comrades from long-ago campaigns. It was a party fit for the frugal registered Republican, nothing ostentatious, just a few six packs of Fat Tire and Miller Lite.
There was Chuck Spinney, who graced the cover of TIME magazine in 1983 sitting at a congressional witness table under the headline, “Are billions being wasted?” Spinney, now 69 and slightly hunched, sipped a Diet Coke as he chatted with 30 other defense budget mavericks. There was Pierre Sprey, 76, a member of the 1970s “Fighter Mafia” inside the Air Force that eschewed whiz-bang technology in favor of lightweight and highly maneuverable jets.
And in the middle of it all was a man whose last day at work at the Project on Government Oversight, a non-profit determined to root out government waste, coincided with news that the Pentagon would ask for an increase of 19 F-35s in next year’s budget at $100 million or more apiece.
But Winslow Wheeler was not in a despairing mood. Emotional, yes, but still feisty.
Spinney and Sprey, he said, “have gotten me into lots of trouble — but no trouble I didn’t enjoy.” And he took several parting shots at the F-35 program.
“It keeps embarrassing itself,” he said. “At some point, the weight and momentum of all those problems and all those costs are going to pass a threshold in our political system.”
His longtime patron addressed the crowd. Philanthropist Phil Straus is the primary backer of POGO’s Straus Military Reform Project, the mission of which is to “keep the Pentagon from spending all of the country’s money,” as he put it.
Straus presented Winslow a parting gift: a clear plaque that he joked was a “naked, see-through thing.”
“It’s like one of those weapons systems,” shouted Lawrence Korb, the former assistant secretary of defense who co-wrote a book with Wheeler when they were both at the think tank Center for Defense Information.
“This is more transparent,” Straus shot back to laughter. On the plaque was a quote from the late military strategist John Boyd, who was a mentor to many of the men in the room:
Wheeler came to Capitol Hill in 1971 as a young Senate aide to New York Republican Jacob Javits and immediately started working on the War Powers Act to rein in the president’s authority to send U.S. forces into combat.
At that time, the Defense Department’s budget was $419 billion (in 2009 dollars), according to the White House Office of Management and Budget. It would grow for most of Wheeler’s career, reaching $577 billion in 2013.
He worked on defense issues for several senators, including Republican Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas and Democrat David Pryor of Arkansas and investigated military weapons at the Government Accountability Office.
In 2002, when he was working on the Senate Budget Committee under New Mexico Republican Pete Domenici, he got more notoriety than he was expecting.
Wheeler had written a series of essays under the pseudonym “Spartacus,” culminating in an insider’s account of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) doing little behind the scenes to stop spending projects despite being a self-proclaimed opponent of pork.
The pseudonym “simply seemed to fit — a slave revolt against his masters,” Wheeler said. “And I was always a fan of the movie.”
His real name soon surfaced in the news media, leading to a meeting with Domenici in which he offered to resign rather than be fired. “I thought it was something that needed to be said, and I was willing to face the consequences,” Wheeler explained.
He quickly landed a job at the Center for Defense Information, where he was paid to speak his mind. He became a well-known figure in defense circles for his emails blasting Pentagon officials and lawmakers alike, pointing out flaws in the military’s flagship weapons programs and analyzing the defense budget in excruciating detail.
He was a master at influencing the debate in Washington from the outside.
“My whole philosophy is it’s useless to appeal to the intellect or reason of Congress,” he said. “They’ll thank you politely and go do whatever they f—-ing please.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Winslow Wheeler is one of the more determined opponents of the F-35 program, not per se but because it is an underperforming waste of taxpayer dollars which routinely fails to meet its technical goals while constantly exceeding its budget and schedules.
Defense-Aerospace.com has been happy to support some of Winslow Wheeler’s dogfights against waste and profligacy, and to publish several of his essays attacking waste and incompetence in the Pentagon.
His latest essay, “The Triumph of the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex: To understand perverse military decision-making, follow the money,” was published on January 27.
While wishing him a long and happy retirement, we do not doubt that he will continue to fight abuses of the system even after hanging up his boxing gloves, and look forward to continuing to support him as he does so.)