Senator Chuck Grassley with a popsicle stick rendering of the Capitol Building, 1981. Photo Credit: Getty Images/CQ Archive

By David Kurlander

President Trump’s brazen decision to fire Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson sent shockwaves through Congress last week. Unsurprisingly, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff—whose communiques with Atkinson over a whistleblower complaint sparked Trump’s impeachment—sent a strongly-worded document request to Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell. In a slightly less expected turn, the President pro tempore of the Senate, Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, broke with Trump and organized a bipartisan letter demanding further explanation for the under-cover-of-pandemic intelligence community house-cleaning. An examination of Grassley’s political ideology and rise to power, however, shows that this move is nothing new for the veteran rabble-rouser.

Over the course of the Trump administration, the 86-year-old Grassley has gone against the President several times, rallying for transparency in the Russia investigation, defending former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and protecting the anonymity of the aforementioned Ukraine whistleblower. And during these moderate pushbacks, Grassley has consistently invoked his 1980s oversight battle against weapons manufacturers, which culminated in his co-authorship of the seminal 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act.

Grassley’s quest to reform the defense industry stemmed from his days as a populist Iowa state rep, where he parlayed his humble Butler County farm upbringing, his time building air conditioners on an assembly line, and his anachronistic (and ongoing!) temperance advocacy into a reputation as an old-fashioned deficit hawk. After an insurgent 1980 Senate upset over close Teddy Kennedy ally John Culver, Grassley—to the anguish of the GOP establishment—zeroed in on Pentagon waste. He castigated Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger’s budgets, aligned himself with Nixon-era Air Force whistleblower Ernie Fitzgerald, and argued for an audit of the costly B1 Bomber.  Grassley’s most aggressive move against Republican expectations, though, came in his decision to dive headfirst into the decade-long price war between massive defense firm General Dynamics and the U.S. Navy. 

Chuck Grassley was attempting to tread into hallowed waters—General Dynamics had invented the military submarine. Founded as Electric Boat just before the turn of the 20th century in Groton, Connecticut, the company funded John Holland, the Irish-born creator of the “submersible ship.” Electric Boat quickly became a crucial piece to the nation’s sea power and political prestige; by 1905, Americans were transfixed by the image of President Teddy Roosevelt at the bottom of Long Island Sound in the Plunger II.

After fulfilling crucial contracts in both World Wars, the company rebranded as General Dynamics and partnered with the Navy’s tenacious Admiral Hyman Rickover to launch in 1954 the U.S.S. Nautilus, the first nuclear-propelled submarine. First Lady Mamie Eisenhower smashed a bottle of champagne against the hull during the euphoric christening, which ushered in the use of nuclear power for non-explosive means. Five years later—in arguably the zenith of both Rickover and General Dynamic’s trajectories—the Nautilus pulled off Operation Sunshine, a highly-publicized demonstration of its reactor during which 100 sailors maneuvered the sub beneath the 1,830-mile icy expanse of the North Pole. 

By the time that Grassley got involved, these halcyon achievements seemed far longer than 30 years in the rearview. There had been intermediary victories, surely; GD’s aircraft division launched the popular B-58 Hustler, led the way on Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, and produced in the early 1970s the F-16, still the most popular fighter jet in the world. But the submarine division, like America’s Cold War consensus at large, was splintering under its own weight. 

The problems bubbled up in 1973, when Admiral Rickover—still clinging to power at the Navy despite his belligerence and advanced age—ordered 18 complicated Trident submarines. A micromanager, Rickover was disgusted by the decrease in skilled workers at the Groton yard (from 80% to 35% over the decade) and the relative distance of GD’s management, increasingly overseen by board chairman and former Empire State Building owner Henry Crown. Rickover started issuing constant alterations to the design process. GD, for its part, responded with sloppy work and, in mid-1976, a staggering $500 million Navy invoice for cost overruns. Rickover refused to pay up.

For more content like this, join the CAFE Insider community, where we explore issues at the intersection of law and politics.

A two-year standoff followed. Navy brass, led by suave Assistant Secretary Edward Hidalgo, attempted to massage Rickover’s ego toward a settlement. Crown and GD President David Lewis threatened to stop making subs altogether and laid off 3,000 Groton employees. Connecticut Senator Abe Ribicoff, fearful of greater unemployment, joined the negotiating table. In June 1978, the Navy—much to Rickover’s chagrin—agreed to pay GD most of the money.

A Justice Department investigation into GD’s cost overruns began in early 1979, only to drag on until 1982 without any charges. Once President Reagan replaced the Rickover-obsessed Jimmy Carter, the Admiral was pushed into retirement and the whole affair began to dissolve.  But Chuck Grassley sensed a sweetheart deal. Why hadn’t the DOJ been fiercer in its investigation of General Dynamics? Why had the Navy been so willing to sideline Rickover? Was it really possible that the subs had cost that much to produce? 

The answers to Grassley’s questions eventually arrived in the form of General Dynamics submarine yard manager Takis Veliotis. In March 1983, the Greek-born, aristocratic Veliotis—facing accusations that he had taken $2.7 million in kickbacks while building GD gas tankers almost a decade earlier—fled the country. He emerged at a bodyguard-surrounded villa outside of Athens, claiming that there had been three attempts on his life and armed with tapes of GD executives discussing lying about submarine costs. Veliotis argued that GD had developed a policy of cooking the books and had used Navy money to buy opulent gifts for dissatisfied parties including, ironically, jewelry for the angry Rickover’s wife.

Grassley had his whistleblower. He sprang into action, partnering with dovish Wisconsin Democrat William Proxmire to subpoena documents from the abandoned DOJ investigation that might shed light on Veliotis’ allegations. Attorney General William French Smith, a longtime Reagan ally already planning his retirement, repeatedly refused to turn over the goods, citing their use in a DOJ-run Veliotis examination.

On Halloween, 1984, with no indication that the DOJ would play ball with Congress, Grassley made a shocking choice: He wrote up a criminal contempt of Congress citation against the Attorney General. “With much surprise and with much genuine surprise that no accommodation was even offered by the Department of Justice, we have no choice but to find the Attorney General in contempt,” Grassley concluded. 

The gambit got a lot of press. There was virtually no chance of Smith paying a legal price (the entire Senate would have had to approve such a motion), but Grassley’s sheer gall in going up against the outgoing AG—Reagan’s friend no less—put new fire into the investigation of General Dynamics. The next three years saw many of Veliotis’ assertions confirmed: the SEC fined GD for its largesse, GD President David Lewis resigned, Grassley had a further star-making turn chairing a Judiciary Committee panel devoted to reforming the sub-building industry, and, at decade’s end, he got the beloved Whistleblower Protection Act passed. Assistant Attorney General Victoria Toensing (now a close Rudy Giuliani ally) ultimately still ended the DOJ investigation in 1987 without filing charges. It’s unclear what happened to Takis Veliotis.

Whatever the outcome, Grassley went up against the legendary General Dynamics. He went up against the Navy’s settlement. He attacked—with threat of prosecution—the Attorney General serving his party’s president. And when it came to Grassley’s own reputation, his tenacity paid off. The Washington Post in 1985 predicted that Grassley was “well on his way to becoming a folk hero,” while his approval rating back in Iowa soared by almost 30 points. Now, as Grassley pushes for transparency in President Trump’s purge of supposed impeachment foes, he has another chance to protect whistleblowers and to show the depth of his Iowan independence.

Note: If you’re interested in learning more about the relationship between General Dynamics, the Navy, and Congress, check out The Defender: The Story of General Dynamics by Robert Franklin, Brotherhood of Arms: General Dynamics and the Business of Defending America by Jacob Goodwin, and former Secretary of the Navy John F. Lehman, Jr.’s memoir, Command of the Seas, each of which were very helpful in writing this article.

For more content like this, join the CAFE Insider community.