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.
I say "quasi" because the Agency, especially in the early 80s, was letting the Pakistanis call many of the shots when it came to running the war and was as often as not applying the brake to folks who wanted to up the ante when it came to fighting the Soviets. CIA's analysts were insisting that the Soviets could not possibly lose the war, and the folks from the operational side at Langley were saying: "Let's bleed 'em, but let's not start World War III either."
Before I had ever met Congressman Wilson, I had of course heard of him. I was from Texas, and Wilson was already a legend there for partying and his ability to bring home federal money to his East Texas constituents. He had helped pull Rep. John Murtha's bacon out of the fire during the ABSCAM investigation while a member of the House ethics committee and had been rewarded by the Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill, with even more of a free hand on the defense appropriations subcommittee.
As Crile and others tell the story, Wilson first got involved in the Afghan war through a girlfriend and Houston socialite Joanne Herring, who had been named an honorary consul for Pakistan. After a visit to Pakistan, the Afghan border, and a meeting with Mohammed Zia, Pakistan's dictator, Wilson returned to Washington and began to turn on the spigots for both Zia and the mujahedin.
Initially, with support from the outside increasing, the Afghan rebels were eating up the Soviet forces: thousands had been killed or wounded, hundreds of aircraft lost, and thousands of tanks and other vehicles destroyed. But, not willing to go down easily, Moscow ratcheted up the fight by deploying elite special forces (Spetsnatz) to Afghanistan and adding the Mi-24D (Hind) attack helicopter to the fight. The Hinds in particular were devastating, and the fight seemed to be turning in the Soviets favor.
Back in Washington, the issue for those of us who wanted to increase support for the rebels was what could be added to their arsenal to help defeat the Hinds. The older, out of storage, surface-to-air missiles that the CIA and others had been providing them were, at best, only marginal effective. Eventually, through the efforts of officials in Weinberger's Pentagon--especially Fred Ikle, the then undersecretary for policy--modern American surface-to-air missiles (Stingers) were sent, providing a devastating and ultimately critical counter to the Soviet military machine 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.
As the minority staff director of the Senate's intelligence committee at the time, Wilson needed my boss, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY), to ok the deal. He also needed the approval of Sen. Sam Nunn, then the ranking member on the Armed Services Committee, whom I also served as an advisor on issues that crossed over our two committees' jurisdictions. His first step was to call me and ask me to get their signatures for the reprogramming.
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.
It was then Moynihan's turn to scan the hallways, which he quite ably did for a few days. But then Wilson struck. He waited until the senator was in an important finance committee hearing, came in through the back door directly behind the senator and the committee members' dais, and publicly accosted the senator from the back. Sitting in my office, I got a panicked call from one of the senator's other aides telling me that Moynihan had said for me to do whatever I had to do to get this "mad man" away from him, including having him ok the reprogramming.
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.
Perfect, I thought. I then called Langley asked them to send a team from the Afghan program down to meet with Sen. Nunn to brief him on the Agency's position. In a day or so, we all met in the senator's office. And sure enough, the CIA caved. Officers who had been constantly calling me over the past month to tell me what a ludicrous idea the Oerlikons were and that Afghan rebels were going to lose their lives carting and protecting these weapons, were now benignly telling Sen. Nunn that the Agency had "no objections" to the reprogramming. Sen. Nunn turned to me, shrugged his shoulders and gave me the old "welcome to Washington" look.
The assumption was that Wilson had gotten to Bill Casey, Reagan's director of central intelligence. And, no doubt, from Casey's point of view, wasting a few tens of millions on the Oerlikons was worth it if it kept this powerful democrat on the side of the angels, especially given all the problems the administration was having getting similar support for its programs in Central America at the time. Plus, in the end, it didn't matter much once the decision to ship Stingers to the Afghan rebels was made a year or so later. 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.