Last month this magazine set out to explain in some detail how the defense budget could be cut without hurting national security. There were two reasons we devoted so much space to the defense issue: first, the enormous importance of the subject for the future of the American economy and military; and second, our sense that many people who favor a smaller defense budget don’t know the specifics of how to accomplish it. This lack of knowledge on the part of would-be critics has long meant that the Pentagon gets virtually everything it wants. And in the few cases it hasn’t gotten what it wanted, the cuts have tended to be crude.

The best explanation for why so many otherwise publicly minded people know so little about the Pentagon involves a kind of ideological spear that the military has gleefully watched its liberal and libertarian critics impale themselves on for years. Many of these critics don’t like the whole idea of weapons, which means they don’t learn details about the weapons, which in turn means that when the time comes to debate whether the weapons are working and should be procured, they find themselves steamrolled. The critics get the satisfaction that comes from railing against war and other nasty things; the country gets billions of dollars’ worth of defective planes, ships, tanks, and missiles.

Such unwillingness to get involved in the nitty gritty details of defense issues was especially pronounced just after the Vietnam war, when any discussion of the relative merits of weapons was seen as another sellout to the military establishment. “Why build effective weapons? To kill more people? No weapons are good; in fact they’re so hateful they shouldn’t even be talked about. So just get rid of them.” That’s how people thought.

This crippling attitude has faded some in the last couple of years as liberals like Gary Hart have realized that we might need something out there to defend us, and that arguing on the Pentagon’s terms—probability of kill, radar capability, and so forth—is the only way to make any cuts at all.

But those who believe the old peace attitude is entirely dead should consider the case of a group called the National Taxpayers Legal Fund. In March, Dina Rasor. the director of the Fund’s Project on Military. Procurement, was fired for being too effective in challenging wasteful military programs. Her activities in the year since she founded the Pentagon watchdog group had offended Edward H. Crane III, former publisher of the left-libertarian magazine, Inquiry, and a board member of the Fund. “The Project on Military Procurement is attempting to increase the efficiency of our fighting machine,” Crane wrote in a memo that preceded the firing. “From my perspective it is already grossly too efficient. I’m also skeptical of arguments that we can actually save the taxpayer money by telling the Pentagon how it can save money.”

The upshot of the objection to Rasor and her efforts to get the military to build better weapons is contained in the comment of the Fund’s board chairman, none other than Eugene McCarthy. According to Crane’s memo, McCarthy believes that it’s “more important to cut the Pentagon’s lean than its fat.” While blunter than most, this anti-defense view is not at all unique among old liberals and their new-found libertarian soulmates. The firing of Rasor shows once again that the best kind of Pentagon criticism the kind, like hers, that ties the Pentagon up in knots with specific, informed attacks on waste and incompetence—often falls victim to silly ideological demands.

No Thanks to Tanks

Rasor, who turned 26 a couple of days after she was fired, is a good example of what the Washington fast track can produce when it’s working well. She was only two and a half years out of Berkeley when she started the Project, with nothing behind her but a stint tearing off wire copy for ABC News and some experience analyzing defense issues for the National Taxpayers Union. In February of last year, A. Ernest Fitzgerald, a former director of the National Taxpayers Union and now director of the Legal Fund (the two groups are officially unrelated), arranged for Rasor to start the Project Fitzgerald, whose decision in 1968 to go public on the $1 billion cost overrun on the Lockheed C5-A airplane made him the most renowned of government whistle-blowers, was trying to find a way to encourage others working inside the Pentagon to reveal the truth about the weapons they worked on. Knowing that few other disgruntled bureaucrats would be willing to follow his lead and ruin their careers for the sake of one patriotic revelation, he hoped that Rasor could act as an outlet for the leakers who weren’t quite willing to go public.

For conventional weapons, the freeze mentality runs the risk of thrusting people back into that old mind trap, where war is bad, peace is good, and the details are to be worked out later.

In the one year sinceshebega n the Project, Rasor has succeeded brilliantly. Every budding movement needs a publicist (in the best sense of the word)—someone who can bring reporters and sources together, keep interested parties informed, and establish useful networks (in the best sense of that word, too). To the extent that “military reform” has become a movement, Rasor performs that role. When a small inventor named Loeb Julie complained that for seven years the army had turned down his designs for a calibrator even though evidence showed it superior to that of his large competitors, Rasor helped him win wide publicity and Senate hearings, which proved him right. When reports surfaced within the army that the hydraulic fluid used in the new M- I tank was dangerously flammable, Rasor brought it to the attention of the press, which has relied on her for much of its information on the flaws in the M-I and other weapons.

“She has become a trusted conduit for Pentagon leakers,” says Bruce Ingersoll of the Washington bureau of The Chicago Sun Times, noting that many leakers don’t like to talk to the press directly. Defense reporters for The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune, and other newspapers and magazines (including this one), have also drawn on Rasor’s work. She is considered not only well informed and intelligent, but a clear talker, which is an especially valued commodity in the arcane world of military hardware.

Reporters covering the Pentagon do not welcome the airy discussions of strategic doctrine Crane wanted Rasor to give them. They cover defense, not foreign policy, and their stories involve whether weapons work, not whether they are “needed” in a larger sense. What the reporters require most are facts, figures, reports, and experts, and that’s what they get from the Project. (One thing they don’t get is classified material, which Rasor refuses to handle.)

Not surprisingly, Rasor isn’t exactly a revered figure at the Pentagon. “I frankly find it difficult to deal with the fact that a young woman with no credentials could get as much credibility in the media and on the Hill,” says Lt. Colonel Bill Hylander in the weary voice of a man who spends much of his time rebutting newspaper stories that the M-1 tank doesn’t work very well, many of which originated with documentation provided by Rasor. Recently Rasor wrote a long article for Reason magazine citing chapter and verse of how the military has fudged the operational testing and evaluation of the M- I , the Sparrow missile, and other weapons. The article struck home on Capitol Hill, where Senator David Pryor inserted it in the Congressional Record and hearings may be called. It even drew the praise of military brass like Admiral Isham W. Linder, who wrote Rasor expressing support for her efforts.

“Dina is successful for basically three reasons,” says one of her sources within the defense establishment who, like most of what Rasor calls her “closet patriots,” prefers not to be identified. “First, she does her homework. She is probably better prepared on her subjects than the principal policy-makers. Second, she limits herself to studying a small number of systems—the Maverick missile, the M-1, the C-5, the cruise missile—which gives her a less scattershot approach. And third, she is not out to destroy defense. She’s got no axe to grind.”

Freezing the Whistle

“It’s surprising we supported her for as long as we did,” says Jule R. Herbert Jr., president of the National Taxpayers Legal Fund, who handled the actual firing of Rasor. Herbert, the author of a recent unsuccessful ballot initiative in the District of Columbia calling for private school tuition tax credits, is a doctrinaire libertarian. He praises much of Rasor’s work—in fact, a recent fundraising letter to Fund members recounts her efforts to publicize the unreliability of the cruise missile—but he was perturbed by her unwillingness to address the assumptions that lie behind the weapons. “My objection was that the project was too narrowly a forum for whistle-blowers, rather than substantive analysis of what’s wrong with all of defense,” Herbert says. ” You can’t avoid the big positions, or you will end up debating on the Right’s terms.”

This is not a new position. Libertarians, along with many liberals, have long argued that we need to completely reassess our defense commitments and the size of our armed forces. The last straw for Crane in his decision to push for Rasor’s firing was a conference of military reform experts sponsored by the Project at which cheaper alternatives to new weapons were discussed. Why build new M-1 tanks when existing M-60s are only half as expensive? they asked. Why return to C-5 air transports when Boeing 747s are available for a fraction of the cost? These kinds of questions irked Crane and Herbert. They created the mistaken impression that Rasor and company were acting like “cheap hawks,” a name applied to some military reformers, including several very conservative members of Congress, who are strongly pro-defense but anti-Pentagon. The libertarians, by contrast, have doubts about whether we need tanks and aircraft at all, beyond the minimal amount required for the defense of the continental United States itself.

The Crane-Herbert position is not without logic. A strong case can be made that the fundamental underpinnings of American defense policy should be reassessed (see “Forget the Persian Gulf’ and “Get Out of Europe,” The Washington Monthly, April). But pending the day that reassessment is completed, we need Dina Rasors to give us the facts on the weapons we might require. If Rasor were to shirk that task in deference to liberal views on foreign policy (however much she personally sympathizes with those views), the flaws of the M-1 would be less widely known, the idiotic wastefulness of airlift procurement would be less well understood, and the Pentagon would be a lot happier.

Eugene McCarthy, chairman of the board of the National Taxpayers Legal Fund, believes it’s more important to cut the Pentagon’s lean than its fat.’

“The Pentagon has used the emotional aspects of foreign policy to muddy the waters on any discussion of weapons procurement for years in order to distract and separate taxpayers,” Rasor wrote in her parting shot to the National Taxpayers Legal Fund board. As for the contention of Crane and many old liberals that an inefficient military will prevent the U.S. from intervening in foreign conflicts, Rasor simply points to Vietnam and its weapons and leadership failures, none of which prevented intervention or hastened withdrawal. Likewise, the knowledge on the part of weapons analysts that helicopters are very fragile and unreliable in combat did not prevent the U.S. from undertaking the disastrous Iranian rescue mission. Because we may fight again one day (whether we are “efficient” or not), it makes some sense to have the leanest, toughest defense possible. That way at least our own soldiers won’t needlessly die, as many did in Vietnam because of faulty weapons.

Dina Rasor feels so strongly that the country must fix its military that she will continue the Project on Military Procurement out of her own savings until another source of funding can be found. She had to let her assistant go, but husband Tom Lawson has agreed to answer the phone, photocopy reports, and handle other secretarial responsibilities for the time being. The Fund is willing to give her a few thousand more dollars (money she originally helped raise), but only on the condition that her biggest backer, Ernie Fitzgerald, leave the Fund board. Fitzgerald, who in recent years has stood up to the Pentagon, Richard Nixon, and the Supreme Court, is not likely to comply. Meanwhile, Rasor, bolstered by many calls from reporters, Capitol Hill staffers, and “closet patriots,” has vowed to press on even if she has to run the Project out of her living room.

It’s no big surprise, of course, that in the competition for funding among liberal groups, something like the Project on Military Procurement is bound to lose out to organizations supporting a nuclear freeze. Preventing the destruction of the world will always grip the public imagination more firmly than an analysis of what is wrong with a tank’s hydraulic system. But without denigrating the genuine accomplishments of the freeze movement, it is important to recognize that sometimes thinking about big abstract issues can distract us from thinking about smaller (though multibillion-dollar) problems for which real solutions are more within reach. For all of its consciousness-raising promise, the freeze movement runs the risk of thrusting people into that old mind trap, where war is bad, peace is good, and the details are to be worked out later. This thinking, while containing a certain logic when applied to nuclear weapons, is disastrous for any effort to do something constructive about the rest of the military, as the history of unscrutinized Pentagon budgets makes clear.

“We didn’t want to become a Consumer Reports on weapons efficiency,” Jule Herbert put it in explaining why Dina Rasor was fired. Yet until enough people decide to play that role, the liberals, the libertarians, and everyone else will continue to waste billions of dollars on a military that benefits no one.

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Jonathan Alter, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is a former senior editor and columnist at Newsweek, a filmmaker, journalist, political analyst, and the publisher of the Substack Old Goats with Jonathan Alter. His most recent book is His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.