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Blowing the whistle on waste, mismanagement at Pentagon

The Pentagon Underground, by Dina Rasor. New York: Times Books. 288 pp. $16.95. It should hardly be surprising that a city as interlinked by official and secret agendas as Washington should also be characterized by extensive systems of underground tunnels. Some are known to enterprising tourists -- the Senate subway, for example. But many, at more restricted levels, are known only to the thousands of bureaucrats who toil in the Washington work force.

As Dina Rasor's book, ``The Pentagon Underground,'' vividly documents, there are types of tunnels in Washington other than those made of concrete or stone. These are the byways of intrigue and private communication that link disparate department heads and lobbyists, fund-raisers and ``think tanks,'' journalists and bureaucrats.

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As director of the Project on Military Procurement, a study group, Mrs. Rasor has put together her own network of tunnels in the Pentagon to expose the waste, cupidity, and, yes, occasional stupidity that can work together to produce weapons systems that are often grossly overpriced, don't work, or are outmoded by the time they reach the troops who must use them. She calls her whistle-blowers her ``closet patriots.''

For high Pentagon officials, the dogged investigative work of the youthful Rasor -- in her early 20s when she began her digging, after working for ABC News and the National Taxpayers Union -- must have come as quite a shock. Her accounts of meeting Pentagon whistle-blowers provide fascinating reading, such as the time she and her husband met a young airman at a doughnut shop at Travis Air Force Base. Here she learned about the 10-cup coffeemaker for military C-5A cargo planes which cost $7,600 each. Not

only that, the coffee brewer had a tendency to break down. She also learned about the armrest pads for the plane, which cost not $100 as she expected, but $670 each, even though, so the airman reckoned, the same pads could be manufactured on the air base for between $5 and $25 each.

Some of Rasor's whistle-blower stories make for particularly sober reading, such as her discussion of the costly M-1 battle tank. She decided she had to see the tank firsthand. The Army, to its credit, let her do just that -- allowed her inside one of these intricate fighting machines. She found the interior stifling -- at least 100 degrees F. The ventilation fan seemed to be pulling in more exhaust than fresh air. After 20 minutes or so she began to feel lightheaded from the heat, the exhaust, or

both. Needless to say, her depiction of the M-1 is not the type of reassuring testimony that would be welcomed by the Pentagon's public relations department.

Today, in part because of accounts such as those of Rasor and her whistle-blower patriots, the Pentagon is under perhaps the most intensive scrutiny it has experienced since the mid-1970s. Current calls for greater efficiency and cost-cutting are coming from congressional committees as well as a special presidential commission. A recent Senate Armed Services Committee report, in fact, called for a major restructuring of the Pentagon, including creation of a more streamlined weapons-procurement system an d the curbing of interservice rivalry and weapons duplication. Given the fact that lawmakers appropriated some $1 trillion for defense during just the first four years of the Reagan administration, such an inquiry seems appropriate, if not a tad late.

Rasor's book is interesting for what it tells us about mismanagement within the Pentagon -- mismanagement, incidentally, that seems more often than not inadvertent. Certainly the politicians, as well as men and women in uniform who manage the nation's defenses, would not intentionally set out to build weapons that don't work.

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How does the public go about ensuring that its tax dollars for defense are well spent?

Rasor provides many earnest suggestions of a nuts-and-bolts nature, such as increasing competitive bidding, curbing or ending the revolving door between military officers and defense contractors, providing more financial rewards for managers who promote efficiency, and so on.

And her proposals are all useful in prodding the military toward greater efficiency. But more could be said. Ultimately, the ``weapons issue'' goes right to the heart of the nation's political system and how Americans view their role in the modern world. It is not enough to criticize the military. For all its faults, the Pentagon is made up of professionals -- bright, able, well-educated professionals. Nor should it be overlooked that the current arms buildup had its genesis back in the Carter years, wh en the US public concluded that the nation's defenses had shrunk too much in the disillusionment after Vietnam. The public wanted a more sophisticated, high-technology-oriented arms machine than seemed to exist in the 1970s. Not only that, it wanted a nondraft, volunteer military, no matter what the cost. But all that meant the need for money, lots of it.

Dina Rasor's book, with all its detail of military hardware and technology, will not be an easy read for most laymen. But it is surely a timely starting place for an examination of today's Pentagon. From there, Americans could do far worse than ask some hard questions. What is the nation's larger mission in the world? What balanced mix of foreign policy and defense is necessary to achieve that mission? How can appropriate weapons be economically produced?

In the present world context, arms are important. But if the history of the 20th century has taught us anything, it is that national safety is not secured through a reliance on technologies -- whether such technologies be Maginot Lines or fortification programs.

Monitor editorial writer Guy Halverson is a former Pentagon correspondent.

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