My War with Charlie Wilson
And Bill Casey's victory.
9:43 AM, Dec 28, 2007 • By GARY SCHMITT
THERE ARE A LOT of words one could use to describe former congressman Charles Wilson--drunkard, sleazy, womanizer, patriot--but the one that most comes to mind in my dealings with him was simply "persistent."
Wilson, whose role in supporting the Afghan mujahedin in their war against the Soviets in the 1980s has become the stuff of a best selling book (Charlie Wilson's War by George Crile, a long-time CBS news producer) and now a ticket-selling movie success of the same name, was a tall, lanky populist Democrat from East Texas. Wilson had first been elected to Congress in 1973 and, by the time the Afghan war had broken out, by hook and by crook, he had made his way well up the seniority ladder of the all-powerful House appropriations committee. It was there he could protect aid to Israel, keep money flowing to Somoza in Nicaragua, and--eventually--pour money into the "covert war" the CIA was quasi-supporting and quasi-directing in Afghanistan.
Before that decision was taken, however, Wilson had decided all on his own that the mujahedin needed the portable anti-aircraft weapon made by Oerlikon, the Swiss arms manufacturer. Capable of spitting out rounds at several hundred a minute, the weapon could throw a blanket of lead against low-flying attack helicopters and planes. Using his position on the subcommittee, Wilson put language in the annual defense appropriations bill that required the Pentagon to "reprogram"--that is, turn over--$40 million of its monies to the Agency to buy a couple of the weapons and the ammunition to go along.
But, before that money could be turned over, the budget rules required in this case that both the chairmen and ranking members of the two relevant Senate committees (armed services and intelligence) literally sign off on the reprogramming. And it is here that I first ran into Charlie Wilson, the persistent Charlie Wilson, in early spring of 1984.
Thinking it mattered, and wanting to give my bosses the best advice I could, I then asked both the Pentagon and CIA what they thought about Wilson's effort to supply the Afghans with 22-mm Oerlikon cannons. Both were adamant that it was one of the dumbest ideas they had ever heard of. The Oerlikon was portable, but definitely not mobile. It would take teams of mules and horses to move the gun, and even larger teams to move the ammo to keep the gun supplied. Once in place, it wasn't going anywhere, and it would be a target as much as a weapon once actually used. And to top things off, each round for the weapon would cost somewhere on the order of $50, with the Oerlikon eating through each 60-round magazine in just a few seconds.
Virtually everyone agreed that the Oerlikons would be a waste of money and resources. And if there was going to be a solution to the Hinds, this was not it. The Oerlikons were so obviously impractical that it didn't take long before Wilson's own sketchy history was combined with his push to buy the weapon into pretty loud whispers that there were kickbacks involved. Or, as the then deputy director of CIA John McMahon later more politely said: "We use to make comments like, it must be Charlie's uncle who owns Oerlikon."
I passed this all along to Sen. Moynihan, who instructed me to stall Wilson's efforts. So, for the next while, I "missed" Wilson's calls or "returned" them when I knew he had probably left for the day. But Wilson was persistent and, sure enough, he started making his way over to the Senate side to track me down in person. For a few days, I avoided him and even found myself asking my secretary to see whether the hallways were clear before heading out to lunch. When he finally got hold of me--literally--the 6'4" Wilson was adamant that I get Moynihan's ok for the reprogramming. Angered by Wilson's attempt to intimidate me, I told him that, if my boss were to listen to me, he wouldn't give the ok. After a few rhetorical rounds of "who was I?" and "who was the congressman here?" Wilson then went into his more soothing East Texas routine and said he would take this matter up with the senator directly.
My next step was to turn to Sen. Nunn, who had only recently taken over for Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson as the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee after Jackson's unexpected death in 1983. But Nunn, of course, was no stranger to Washington's ways and was quite capable of standing pretty firm if he thought it worthwhile. When I briefed Nunn on what was up, his response was simple but smart. He'd only approve the reprogramming if the Agency said it really wanted the Oerlikons.
So the mujahedin got the Oerlikons. But, as predicted, once they had moved them to a spot, that is where they stayed; and also as predicted, they were of marginal use in the war against the Hinds, at best. But if buying them kept "Good Time" Charlie Wilson happy, that was good enough for Bill Casey--and Casey was probably right.
Gary Schmitt is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and former minority staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.