A few years back, Elmer B. Staats, head of the General Accounting Office, set up an "Advisory Panel on Procurement" that is a Who's Who of the defense contracting industry. It includes representatives from Martin Marietta, Northrop, Grumman, Lockheed, TRW, Rockwell, Honeywell, Westinghouse, Boeing and United Technologies, among others.

The idea, Staats said, was to ask experts outside the government "whether we're asking the right questions, to get their ideas to crank into our work plans." In 1965, representatives of many of the same companies testified in hearings that effectively removed the GAO from monitoring defense contracts.

A week ago, a second outside panel on defense, made up of retired Pentagon officials, held its first meeting at the GAO for another perspective on manpower, readiness and weapons system issues. Included are several advocates of the expensive, high-technology approach to security issues, which the GAO has raised general questions about in recent reports. Also a member is Paul Ignatius, who as assistant secretary of defense in 1965 led off the critical hearings by saying the Pentagon had no intention of asking for refunds from contractors that the GAO had recommended.

Staats is quick to point out that the two panels are merely advisory. "We make up our own minds about what we do," he said. But some other defense experts said the groups could be viewed as current evidence of the GAO's historical aversion to keeping a close watch on billion-dollar defense contracts.

The 1965 hearings chaired by Rep. Chet Holifield, then head of a House Government Operations subcommittee, are viewed as a turning point in GAO's relations with the Pentagon. Joseph Campbell, Staat's predecessor as comptroller general, was harshly criticized for being too rough on defense contractors. When Staats took over, "he saw which way the wind was blowing and let the contractors alone," one longtime associate said.

Just before his 15-year term at the GAO ran out last week, Staats wrote a detailed letter to Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger outlining several areas where economies in the military could save billions of dollars. In fact, he has said there is more potential for savings in defense than any other area of government.

His letter did raise the issue of finding cheaper, more reliable alternatives to today's sophisticated weapons systems. But none of the recommendations targeted specific defense contracts.

Staats said the GAO has let the Defense Contract Audit Agency lead the way in this area. "Our essential role is to audit the performance of the Department of Defense. If the agency is at fault, then why go after the contractor?"