Leading an assault on the Pentagon Analyst: Chuck Spinney sifts through piles of bureaucracy and points out flaws he uncovers in the Defense Department.

March 08, 1998|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

The Navy has a $47 billion problem, and some of its leaders have decided who gets the blame.

Not Boeing Co., the contractor that built a flawed fighter plane. And not program officials who let the Pentagon start production of the plane without mentioning that its wings don't work right. That's not what the Navy's upset about. Instead, the thread of blame twists through the halls of the Pentagon to an office so small the desk blocks the door from closing.

Here Franklin C. "Chuck" Spinney has infuriated Navy brass by using the telephone, copy machine and e-mail to tell the world what's wrong with the Navy's Super Hornet fighter jet. Now the secretary of defense is withholding $2 billion from the $47 billion program, and some members of Congress are spoiling to put the whole project in deep freeze.

For his efforts, Spinney hears comments like Assistant Navy Secretary John W. Douglass made recently in the Norfolk, Va., Virginian-Pilot, saying that the fighter's biggest problem is leaks to the news media by "weenies" who otherwise would be "just another low-level puke in the bureaucracy."

Spinney looks the part in his plaid sweater vest and khaki pants. But in a bureaucratic career that spans more than a generation, he has transcended his lowly status as a civilian analyst to become one of the most polarizing figures in the Pentagon.

"Chuck is sort of like the conscience of the Pentagon," said Charlie Murphy, an aide to Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa. "He's a very moral person. He sees things in terms of right and wrong."

"He can antagonize some people with that," said Thomas Christie, a former boss. "Chuck doesn't help himself all the time."

The Super Hornet is only the most recent example of Spinney's vast body of criticisms and writings, much of it focused on the Pentagon budget and loaded with terms such as "hallucinating," "insults the American taxpayers" and "undermines our form of government."

Some insiders won't talk about Spinney publicly for fear of association, others because they despise him so much they mistrust their tongues. His defiance is doubly lonely because it violates both the military's code of obedience and the bureaucracy's need for facelessness.

But he wasn't always a solitary voice at the bottom of a well. Fifteen years ago, Spinney made the March 7 cover of Time magazine and became the poster boy for an eccentric band of renegade bureaucrats known as the Pentagon Underground or the Military Reform Movement.

At its heart was a now almost mythic former fighter pilot named John Boyd, known as "40-second Boyd" because he could win any dogfight in that time or less.

Under Boyd's direction, the group of fewer than a dozen civilian and uniformed insiders set out to change the habits of the military and the industry that serves it. Then, one by one, the enormous machine they challenged ground them down.

Boyd, who died last year, left to study philosophy. His right-hand man gave up and started a jazz recording studio. Another high-profile follower went into county politics, wrote a book and was recently the subject of an HBO movie. Today, only Spinney is left, plodding along on the same course.

"We call Chuck," said one sympathetic Marine Corps colonel, "the Last Man Standing."

Boyd's disciple

There is a window in Spinney's office, but it faces another Venetian-blinded window. One wall is mostly blackboard, covered with equations. A set of bookshelves is stuffed with military reference works, the desk piled with three-ring binders, policy journals and, usually, a bottle of Diet Coke. Lately, documents about the Super Hornet form another layer of clutter atop it all.

Spinney, his eyes red by the end of the day and face pulled into a perpetual scowl of concentration, spins in his chair from desk to laptop computer to telephone.

He hates the passive-sounding title of analyst, but that's basically Spinney's job -- to study warplanes for the program analysis and evaluation section of the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Spinney refuses to stay within boundaries, though, roaming into a variety of military issues. His civil service salary is about $100,000 a year.

Though the 52-year-old engineer came of age during the 1960s, he is no graying campus radical. He was born into the military at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. His father was a career Air Force officer, what Spinney calls a "true believer."

The son followed straight into the Air Force after graduating from Lehigh University in 1967 with a mechanical engineering degree. His first posting: Wright-Patterson, where he worked in the flight dynamics lab next to a lieutenant whose father had worked there with Spinney's. He spent most of the Vietnam War researching the characteristics of fighter planes.

It was during an assignment to the Pentagon that Spinney encountered the force that would alter his life: Col. John Boyd, who became his boss in the Air Force research and development office.

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