The Pentagon Underground, by Dina Rasor, New York: Times Books, 310 pages, $16.95
Every good journalist who works in Washington has sources like Dina Rasor. She has dedicated what seems to be her whole life to disseminating facts about the issue that consumes her—Pentagon mismanagement. She lives off what pittance she can scrape together from organizations interested in her cause. Her dedication and tirelessness earn her the respect of experts who think as she does. They leak documents to her and tip her off about developments. She takes this information to reporters from major newspapers, and important stories result. The stories shape legislation, and the reporters whose bylines accompany these stories win awards for them.
Often, news sources like Rasor are at first content with the social benefit they are providing. But eventually they begin to feel an injustice in their situation. They think they should get the bylines, the glory, the relatively high salaries.
Usually, however, there is a good reason they are sources and not reporters. Either they can't write very well, or they have a problem putting things in perspective, or both. In the case of Rasor, whom I have never met, probably both. Which isn't to say she hasn't done a great public service over the past few years, possibly greater than we journalists who are better rewarded. She has. Nor is it to say you can't find a lot of valuable information about Pentagon mismanagement in her book, The Pentagon Underground. You can.
The book tells plenty about the billions of dollars spent on tanks and the like that don't work, and about phony tests to make it seem that the tanks and the like do work. The book validly points out that in the Pentagon's case, mismanagement not only wastes tax dollars but jeopardizes lives and our ability to defend American interests.
But the book is organized as a Rasor memoir. And while some of the naive-young-woman-goes-to-Washington-and-meets-the-power-structure material is educational, most of the tales of her schoolgirl nervousness and the difficulty she has applying her make-up before going on television just isn't as interesting as some editor at Times Books told her it was. The charm of her wide-eyed naiveté vanishes in a few pages and becomes cloying.
What can you say, for example, about chapters that begin: "The clock radio jarred me out of my sleep. As I shook myself awake and began to remember why I was rising so early, the excitement and fear began to pulse through me. I was to appear on the ABC news show Good Morning America. The subject I was to discuss I knew well: whether or not to establish an independent office inside the Secretary of Defense's office to test the weapons separately from the bureaucracy that develops and builds them. A year before, I had written an article for REASON magazine on the subject."
Better to go back and look up the article in REASON. Or the original articles written by Walt Mossberg in the Wall Street Journal, Bruce Ingersoll in the Chicago Sun-Times, and Stephen Webbe in the Christian Science Monitor. Their work might have been impossible without Dina Rasor out there digging, but they said it better. Or read James Fallows's National Defense. For all the stuffed khaki shirts we meet along the way, this book is more a resource for someone who wants to come to Washington and be a journalists' source like Dina Rasor than for someone who wants to learn about the Pentagon.
There is one lengthy anecdote of particular interest to libertarians—Rasor's unfortunate conflict with Edward Crane, who for a while ran my favorite magazine (the now-defunct Inquiry) and continues to run the Cato Institute, a free-market-oriented think tank. Crane was on the board of the National Taxpayers' Legal Fund, which sponsored Rasor's work for a while, and he had her defunded in a dispute.
Crane thought Rasor counterproductive, arguing that the Pentagon is already too efficient and that we have more to fear from its lean than its fat. I think I know just what he meant by that, and I completely agree. Differently phrased by the right mediator, Dina Rasor probably would agree, too. Reading about her feud with Crane was like reading a few months ago about Corazon Aquino and Salvador Laurel, who were given the chance to unseat Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and almost blew it because they couldn't come to terms on their political organization.
If such powerful contributors to the public good as Ed Crane and Dina Rasor can't get along, we are never going to get anywhere with the real bad guys.
Jonathan Kwitny is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the author of Endless Enemies: The Making of an Unfriendly World.