By Jason Vest
March 1, 2006
Chuck Spinney has retired to his sailboat, but he's still taking aim at Defense waste.
The scene on a recent Friday evening train from Washington to New York City was familiar: Businessmen in ties and shirt sleeves pecking away at laptops, businesswomen fielding calls on mobile phones, workweek-weary travelers heading to the club car in search of a post-sundown counter to flagging blood sugar. Seeming a bit out of place was Franklin "Chuck" Spinney. Bereft of laptop or cell phone and clad in a distinctly unbusinesslike ensemble of khakis (wrinkled), red plaid shirt (threadbare) and brown cardigan sweater-vest (battered), Spinney hardly looked like someone on his way to a TV interview with Bill Moyers, let alone someone who would be featured in a provocative new documentary by award-winning filmmaker Eugene Jarecki, who's best known for The Trials of Henry Kissinger.
But as the retired Defense Department analyst spoke about his turn in Jarecki's Why We Fight-a film that includes perspectives ranging from Democrat to Republican, neoconservative to liberal, about the current state of the "military-industrial complex" that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of in his 1961 farewell address-it wasn't hard to understand Spinney's appeal to Moyers, Jarecki and their audiences.
For most of his 26-year career as an analyst in the Tactical Air Division of the Pentagon's Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation, Spinney was a formidable force in the service of anyone seeking to decipher the complexities of Defense arcana. Indeed, says Jarecki, "I think anybody who's decided to make a study of the inner workings of the Pentagon hasn't done his homework if he hasn't talked to Chuck-so many roads lead to him, which is why I knew it was essential to have him in the film."
First, however, Jarecki had to track down the analyst-no small task. There was a time when it wouldn't have been a challenge. After Spinney landed on the cover of Time magazine in 1983-for congressional testimony in which he critically parsed the systematic problems and excesses of the Defense budget-a wrathful Caspar Weinberger, then Defense secretary, wanted Spinney fired. Though a bipartisan crew of congressmen (including then-Rep. Dick Cheney) successfully stayed Weinberger's hand, he attempted to mete out a punishment of sorts by not only freezing Spinney at the GS-15 level, but even going so far as to order a plaster cubicle built around him (colloquially known as the "Spinney Wall"), lest his fiscally conservative influence corrupt younger, more impressionable analysts in earshot.
Though many might find the situation disappointing, Spinney thrived over the next 20 years. He produced scores of formal and informal studies and briefings for Pentagon officials, congressional staff, private industry and journalists on everything from the dangers of doctrinal intransigence to the avoidable costs of unnecessary weapons systems and dubious acquisition and procurement practices. But in 2003, after nearly 34 years of government service (seven and a half as an Air Force officer, 26 as a civilian Defense analyst), Spinney decided he had done his bit for military reform.
Not only did he retire, but he practically expatriated, setting sail with his wife, Alison, on their 40-foot sailboat and effectively severing contact with the mainland. Happy to talk about defense issues but unwilling to interrupt the first phase of his retirement to return to shore, Spinney forced Jarecki to hopscotch down the Atlantic coast in pursuit of an interview. "By the time I got to him, I felt like I was following an international man of mystery," says Jarecki. "He was on a boat somewhere in the Bahamas, and I had to get myself out there, which I did, Dramamine and all, to interview him."
Jarecki filmed nearly 12 hours of conversation with Spinney, then distilled it into much shorter snippets. Though Spinney doesn't command the most screen time, he is, says Jarecki, a linchpin of the film. He appears on camera to cogently and succinctly explain how a culture of cost-plus contracting unnecessarily bloats the defense budget. He talks about why precision-guided munitions aren't consistently precise and about the adverse impact of enlisted recruitment practices. His comments, in tandem with the film's visual images, serve to update the themes of Eisenhower's famous speech.
Briefly forsaking Spain and his sailboat, Spinney returned to the United States in January for the New York City première of Why We Fight as well as for his second appearance in three years on Bill Moyer's PBS series NOW.
Though happy to make the rounds of old friends and colleagues, Spinney was saddened by the news and intelligence they brought him. "Everything is worse than it was before; the QDR (Quadrennial Defense Review, which was released in early February) still [has us] spending more and on the wrong stuff than we need to," he sighed. "Get me back to my boat."
By Jason Vest
March 1, 2006