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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 flawless-seeming briefing or defense intellectual’s monograph.

But Fitzgerald is so obsessed with his own experiences that he is incapable of producing the critical analysis of the Pentagon that he must have wanted this book to be. He can’t rise above the inescapably dull details of his own story. Occasionally he makes a claim for the larger significance of his misadventures (“Ernie Fitzgerald was important only as a man who represented a thesis vital to the well-being of the United States”), and then he sinks back into the slog of acronyms and names you can’t keep straight. The following short paragraph is characteristic:

That same day Russ Hemenway, chairman of FCG, called to report a sign of moderation at the ACLU: Halperin had said that GAP and the ACLU were negotiating the term “classifiable” with ISOO, and he thought they’d get a compromise that would persuade me to sign SF 189. Another note of some interest was Kris Kolesnik’s discovery that Garfinkel’s supporting cast in approving the standard form had been Ed Meese’s assistant attorney general, Richard Willard; Andy Feinstein of Pat Schroeder’s staff—and Allan Adler.

Everyone who crosses Fitzgerald is immediately put into the category of world-class villains. Fitzgerald makes no distinction between Reagan, the greatest of defense wasters, and Jimmy Carter, who was comparatively restrained. Ralph Nader, a man with no discernible ties to the military-industrial complex, is one of the bad guys because of his support for Carter’s civil service reforms and several other minor transgressions. David Packard, Richard Nixon’s deputy secretary of defense, who deserves credit for much of what little successful procurement reform there has been over the last twenty years, fills, to Fitzgerald, the “Wehrwirtschaftführer role played by Alfred Krupp.” James Schlesinger is compared to Goering, and Carter to Mussolini. The “situation in Washington in the fall of 1986” had “some parallels” to Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. When Fitzgerald’s lawyer requests that Nixon be called to testify at a civil service hearing it’s “as if some puny colonies in the New World had called George III to account for his actions in 1776.”

Life in the corridors of the Pentagon is no less dramatic. Fitzgerald describes being repeatedly tailed on the way home from work; once he had to crouch behind a tree in his front yard, rifle in hand, until two men sitting in a car parked on his street drove away. One fellow whistle-blower “received many threats that he would be killed, his house burned, and his teenage daughter disfigured.” Another was declared mentally incompetent by the Air Force and died a broken man. These stories—in fact, all of Fitzgerald’s story—have a kind of movie-reinforced logic; if you picture them projected on a screen, they don’t seem exaggerated.

In the movies, though, Fitzgerald himself would have walked away at some point—he’d be in the foreground of the shot, walking toward the camera with his coat slung over his shoulder, with the Pentagon looming in the background. In real life, Fitzgerald has the civil servant’s obsession with keeping his job. He appears never to have seriously considered making a career in the lively defense-reform community in Washington that has sprung up during this decade on congressional staffs and in public interest organizations like the Center for Defense Information and the Project on Military Procurement. He once interrupts his account to report with pride his promotion to a new level in the general schedule, and the justifiable firing of a federal employee is, to him, an inconceivable event. To the extent that he has a solution to the problem of military procurement it is that responsibility for procurement should be transferred from uniformed officers to civilian Pentagon employees like himself.

Fitzgerald’s civil-service-lifer mentality slightly contradicts his view of the modern world, which is one of profound suspicion. Fitzgerald could be used as evidence that populists are backward looking. He believes that towns are superior to cities and small businesses to corporations, and that most of the country’s problems could be easily solved if we would embrace old-fashioned virtues such as honesty and thrift. He is without ideology—among his allies are not only the liberals you’d expect, like Barney Frank and William Proxmire, but also Pat Buchanan and Robert Dornan (who is probably the most right-wing member of Congress). In his adopted home state of Virginia, he says, “I had long been an admirer of the tightwad instincts of the Byrd dynasty,” which, since the Byrds are better known as the architects of massive resistance to desegregation than as frugal managers, demonstrates how singleminded is Fitzgerald’s concentration on his issue.

He sees military procurement as, in effect, the bad seed that is going to ruin America. Wall Street and the big corporations set up the defense contracting business to enrich themselves; in order to protect it from attacks, they bought off, and thus permanently corrupted, the Congress and the intellectuals; and ultimately the inefficiency of the defense contractors worked its way back up-stream into all of corporate America, to the point where we’re now threatened with the downfall of the country. The federal deficit, our international trade problems, the laxity of ethical standards in the country—defense contracting caused it all. Toward the end of The Pentagonists Fitzgerald says mournfully,

For a long time I have felt like an eyewitness to the systematic disintegration of everything that made America competitive in the industrial world of the twentieth century.

A Gibbon of our society could no doubt settle the question of how important the overall bad effects of the military procurement system were. In the shorter run, the issue Fitzgerald raises is whether, by reforming procurement, we can eliminate “waste, mismanagement, and fraud,” and thus strengthen our defenses while cutting the defense budget.

The procurement system began because of waste and mismanagement, if not fraud, in the military’s old in-house system for developing and producing weapons. Thomas L. McNaugher, in New Weapons, Old Politics, a history of defense contracting, reminds us that

the Army’s Ordnance Department, for example, was notoriously slow when it came to introducing new weapons; Springfield Arsenal took seventeen years to develop, test, and finally produce the M-1 rifle.

Before World War II, procurement wasn’t a major issue, because we didn’t maintain a large military establishment during peacetime. During the war, McNaugher says, the government got around its own inefficiency by giving private companies generous budgets to produce weapons and imposing few regulations, and as a result procurement worked quite well.

It was only with the onset of the cold war that the current procurement system was born. Weapons continued to be contracted out to private companies, on a scale unprecedented during peacetime—the idea had taken hold that because of the Soviet threat, the United States needed to keep its armed forces at something closer to a wartime level more or less permanently. But the weapons didn’t get an immediate battlefield test anymore, so there was much more room for inefficiency and favoritism in procurement. It was the vast private production of weapons for purposes of deterrence rather than of fighting that was the important new development of the early Fifties.

The Ernest Fitzgeralds of an earlier age would accuse the arms manufacturers of promoting war so that they could make a lot of money. That charge has disappeared from our political discourse, because the arms manufacturers don’t need a war to make a lot of money. What is remarkable, in retrospect, about Dwight Eisenhower’s famous warning about the military-industrial complex is how little time it took for the complex to become a cause of alarm. By the mid-Fifties, there were already complaints that interservice rivalry was causing the duplication of weapons systems; the contractors were already skilled in the art of spreading subcontracts around in influential congressmen’s districts; and the Congress had already started to “micro-manage” (to use a favorite Pentagon term of opprobrium) procurement by requiring a degree of bureaucratic review that the military found oppressive. Efforts to reform procurement have gone on almost continuously since the passage of the Defense Reorganization Act of 1958. The Kennedy administration, the Nixon administration, and, yes, the Reagan administration all in their first year announced major procurement reforms, and Reagan then began his second term by appointing a commission on “defense management.” In July, the current defense secretary, Dick Cheney, announced his own procurement reforms.

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