THE PENTAGON UNDERGROUND. By Dina Rasor. Times Books. 294 pp. $16.95.
DINA RASOR is a crusading Alice in Wonderland. Her Wonderland is the Pentagon, which is every bit as fantastic as the land Lewis Carroll created for his Alice. And she moves through it with Alice's clear-eyed rationality.
In Dina's Wonderland the seemingly irrational behavior of the inhabitants has ignoble roots -- in the pork barrels of Congress, in the lobbying and profiteering of defense contractors and, most of all, in the building and protecting of bureaucratic fiefdoms within the Pentagon empire.
That is Rasor's message in The Pentagon Underground, her account of skullduggery and worse in the selection and purchase of the weapons with which this country proposes to defend itself. She is the founder, boss and principal operative of the Project on Military Procurement, a tiny organization that serves as a channel to Congress, the press and the public for Pentagon whistle- blowers, in the closet and out.
Here is Rasor's description of her Wonderland:
"The Pentagon's stated purpose is to buy weapons that work to defend our country, but somewhere along the line a bureaucratic survival instinct takes hold and makes normally patriotic men hide facts, ignore bad test results and even commit illegal acts while waving the flag even higher to cover their motives to (sic) the public and even themselves."
These self-corrupted bureaucrats and their uniformed confederates are the center ring performers in what Rasor calls a three- ring circus, with defense contractors and pork barrel-stuffing members of Congress in the other two rings. The result, she says, is military hardware that often endangers rather than protects the lives of servicemen.
The meat of Rasor's book is not in such generalized charges but in her experiences on the battlefield she has chosen and the documentation she has assembled.
HER TALE of her assault on the Army's M-1 tank illustrates not only her tenacity but the way the Pentagon goes about protecting its own. It begins with a mysterious tipster and culminates in a congressionally-sponsored visit to a test range, where Rasor gets to drive the tank and even to fire its 105- mm. gun (during which firing she satisfies herself that the tank's fancy computerized laser aiming system works no better than the old-fashioned optical system). Along the way she is approached by a Soviet agent. Pretty good for a comparative newcomer to the mysteries of military procurement in her mid-twenties.
Rasor recognizes that a cooperative press is essential to her crusades, so she courts reporters assiduously and skillfully. And how do reporters feel about her? By her account, great, except for those she considers patsies for the Pentagon. In one instance, she reports, she called 22 reporters, and 20 of them wrote stories based on the information she provided. That is a boast the highest- priced flack in Washington would be proud to make.
I asked two highly respected defense reporters for their opinions of Rasor and her project. One said he considered her a good source. "You have to pay attention to Dina," he said; she dispenses "high quality stuff." Some reporters, he added, are put off by "Dina and her ways," but on balance he rated her a distinct asset.
The other reporter minimized Rasor's usefulness and influence. He conceded she did much to bring the M-1 tank and C-5 cargo plane problems into the open, but he charged her with an appetite for personal publicity and a preoccupation with trivia rather than the big issues of defense policy.
It is true that Rasor deals with hardware -- the tank that fails test after test, the coffee maker that costs the taxpayers $7,622 a copy. But her organization is, after all,he Project on Military Procurement, not the Project on Defense Policy or the Project on Military Structure. And it isn't hard to see a relationship between the bureaucratic misbehavior she reports and the concerns about Pentagon organization and management that are boiling up in Congress. Rasor and Senator Barry Goldwater would agree that the machine is broken and must be fixed.
We learn much here about Dina Rasor and considerable about whistle-blowers who have gone public. But we learn little about the real Pentagon underground of the title, the Rasor sources who choose to operate from undercover. That is a necessary weakness to some extent; Rasor makes a great point of the protection she gives her sources. But it would be interesting and useful to know more about their motivations and methods. Instead we get generalizations:
"I do not know the size of the Pentagon underground and I certainly do not know all the members. Many cannot make themselves known even to me bcause of the risk to their careers, so others must intervene on their behalf . . ."
She says her sources include scientists and weapons designers, former and current military personnel, industrial engineers, auditors. She admits that there also are "hanghers-on" -- those grinding personal axes. "I feel that it is important to know that this not- so-noble element exists," she says. But she adds that "we are far too small to bicker on the 'purity' of each member's commitment to our goals."
Don't look in The Pentagon Underground for polished writing or sparkling prose. Rasor's style is at best pedestrian. It is often awkward and sometimes ungrammatical. But the stuff is there, and her enthusiasm and indignation give it life. She offers a primer on how things are done in the Pentagon Wonderland but shouldn't be. It should make your pocketbook scream and your blood boil.