'Charlie Wilson's War' would be harder to fight these days

Rep. Charlie Wilson, the east Texas Democrat who died this week, directed millions of dollars in covert funding to help mujahedeen fighters oust Soviet troops from Afghanistan in the 1980s. But efforts at government transparency in budgeting would make that more difficult today.

Chris Pizzello/AP
Former US Rep. Charlie Wilson, the subject of the film 'Charlie Wilson's War,' arrives with his wife Barbara at the world premiere of the film in Los Angeles in 2007. Wilson died in Lufkin, Texas on Wednesday, Feb. 10.

To most of his House colleagues, Rep. Charlie Wilson (D) of Texas, who died Wednesday, was best known for a swashbuckling style, an easy wit, and a talent for moving government funds to causes that mattered to him – whether to constituents in East Texas or to the anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan.

The “liberal from Lufkin” – a tag from his years in the state legislature – was out of sync with his conservative electorate on issues like abortion rights, which he supported, but made up for it by winning federal dollars for his district.

From his perch on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, he built a clinic for veterans, expanded the Big Thicket National Preserve, and won job-creating Pentagon contracts. But he will be most remembered for the vast funds he directed, mainly covertly, to anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan, including Osama Bin Laden.

Stinger missiles for mujahedeen fighters

He called them “the Muj,”and for much of the 1980s, their support was the passion of his life. By the end of the 1980s, Wilson was directing covert funding of some $750 million a year to arm mujahedeen fighters, including the Stinger missiles that proved so effective in shooting down Soviet helicopters.

He did it by leveraging the control over government funding from his seats on the Appropriations Committee and its subcommittee on foreign operations and information and contacts from his service on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. In those days, the appropriations favor factory was nearly as black a box as covert intelligence funding. Wilson won support for covert funding by helping members with funding for projects in their districts.

“Charlie Wilson’s War” – the title of the 2007 movie in which actor Tom Hanks played Wilson – is a feat that would be tougher to pull off under new transparency rules of the House and Senate, say budget watchdog groups.

“Any member of Congress still has a capacity to spend money and disguise it in some way, but they’d have to have more help than in the past, in part due to the transparency,” says Thomas Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste. “But not everything is transparent. There’s still a black budget in the Pentagon and CIA that’s kept secret.”

US stopped helping Afghans after Soviet withdrawal

Wilson’s efforts to continue US funding for humanitarian support after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 largely failed.

“If we had kept up the work he had done, building those schools, maybe we wouldn’t have had the problems that we did,” says Raymond Smock, former House historian and director of the Robert C. Byrd center for legislative studies in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

After a visit to Yugoslavia in 1993, Wilson began pressuring the Clinton administration to take a more active role in the crisis in Bosnia.

“This is good vs. evil, and if we do not want to Americanize this, then what do we want to Americanize? We have to stand for something,” he said on the floor of the House.


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