Whistling in the Pentagon

New Weapons, Old Politics: America's Military Procurement Muddle

by Thomas L. McNaugher
Brookings Institution, 244 pp., $14.95 (paper)

A. Ernest Fitzgerald is surely not the only American author who thinks that there is a conspiracy dedicated to destroying him, but he is unusual in his willingness to discuss it cheerfully and unself-consciously. In Fitzgerald’s case, the conspirators are not only military officers and defense contractors (who understandably want him out of his job as a troublemaking cost analyst for the Air Force), but also members of Congress, Cabinet officers, public interest lobbyists, White House staff members, and several presidents. The thought that he might not be worth all these people’s trouble seems not to have occurred to him. At one point in his book he approvingly quotes a friend who heard that a pledge not to leak information was being presented for signature to Pentagon employees: “My God! Reagan’s carpet-bombing the Constitution just to simplify going after a few leakers. Mostly you.”

Fitzgerald became well known in 1968, when he testified in Congress about cost overruns and technical flaws in the C-5A, a troop transport plane built by Lock-heed. Pentagon employees, even civilians, aren’t supposed to do this. Harold Brown, who was secretary of the Air Force at the time, summed up the code in a memo he wrote about Fitzgerald:

I drew the distinction between advocating one’s views vigorously within the department before a decision was taken, and public non-support, or volunteering and advocating contrary views to the press and the Congress.

In 1969 Fitzgerald’s job was abolished, and he began a long legal battle that resulted in his reeinstatement in 1973. But it isn’t as if the years between 1968 and 1973 were only an interlude in his life; to judge from this account, ever since Fitzgerald first went public his activities have been essentially the same, a long series of lawsuits, hearings, leaks to reporters and congressional aides, and visits to investigate defense plants. He has something of the aspect of a professional litigant: Fitzgerald’s life and “the Fitzgerald case” have become indistinguishable.

People with such histories are usually admirable and maddening at the same time. Certainly Fitzgerald is. He has been willing to live as a pariah in the Pentagon for the sake of his beliefs, and on the details of defense contracting he truly knows what he’s talking about. The best moments in The Pentagonists are Fitzgerald’s demolitions of this or that little Pentagon dodge. He demonstrates that the “learning curve,” a notion that has become holy writ in business schools, is in the defense industry just an excuse contractors use to justify getting most of their money in the early stages of a contract, because then the cost of making each weapon is presumably higher. He provides specific cost breakdowns of some of the scandalously expensive spare parts that got so much attention a few years ago, in such a way as to prove that there isn’t any reasonable explanation why they cost so much. He has a wonderful instinct for the telling question that will obliterate a colonel’s…

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