Review: Blank Check: The Pentagon's Black Budget by Tim Weiner Print E-mail

29a(San Diego Union-Tribune October 5, 1990)

Agency & Author Overkill

It's all here, every sordid nickel and filthy dime.

Money for murder, millions spent in search of enemies, foreign policy bought and sold in the White House basement. The abusers?

Who else but the CIA, destabilizing governments worldwide: Vietnam, Panama, Cambodia, Guatemala, Chile.

Or making seismic blunders in the name of National Security: the Bay of Pigs; Watergate, Cuban exiles and dirty tricks; the secretly funded wars in Laos, Angola and Afghanistan; Ollie North, the Enterprise and Iran-contra. Tim Weiner's spin on CIA evil says that the Pentagon, to keep such low-intensity warfare alive, has acquired nearly one-fourth of its present budget, a black budget totaling $36 billion, in ways that defy any public accounting as to how those funds are received and used. (For unearthing this information at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Weiner won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987.)

"The Pentagon's budget is not an open book. When I looked inside it, I found hundreds of programs camouflaged under code names, their costs deleted, their goals disguised. Code words and blank spaces stood where facts and figures should have been."

What's more, he says, Congress, with a wink and a nod, has approved of this method, and allows the Pentagon to use such secret money for any purpose it chooses: To fund cost overruns (the Stealth bomber) or covert actions (assassination plots in Nicaragua). Well, now we know what we already know.

Now what? Blank Check seems to have made a mountain out of a mountain, an outrage out of something outrageous.

Just what is the point of this book?

What is new here?

Why write or read another catalog about the DOD's insanity? Some may say we need another comprehensive look at the Pentagon's funds; publicity keeps us honest.

True, this book does reveal the secret CIA funding over the last 40 years.

And yes, Weiner shows that our cold war policies have produced ridiculous quantities of weapons out of an easily manipulated fear of communism.

His research will provide ample evidence about the deceitful mavericks in the military. But I find troubling Weiner's interpretation of motives.

For one thing, he seldom differentiates between duplicity and excess in those who set government policy.

He tends to see all national security decisions as politically motivated and kept alive through secrecy, which is not always true.

Reagan's arms-for-hostages deal was an abortive political scheme, while the Dr. Strangelove absurdity of MILSTAR, our anti-nuclear-attack satellite strategy, is the result of a schoolboy's technological fantasy, of which the Pentagon seems quite proud. In Weiner's cosmos, people seem to do bad things because the doors are closed.

The long chapter on the Stealth bomber confirms this.

It details how the generals lobbied key representatives to vote funds not only for aircraft industry jobs in their districts but also to puff up their patriotism. But Weiner's logic is fuzzy.

If, as he believes, open debate will curb some of the Pentagon's abuses, yet at the same time Congress is willing to comply with the generals' wishes, what makes him think openness will make the military more accountable?

We have always had open debate about education in the U.S., but that doesn't lower class size, improve scores or get people reading. Despite its well-intentioned call for openness, Weiner's book appeals to our outrage, not our understanding.

Worse, it makes outrage the theme, and not the hard task of analyzing the curious ways power is institutionalized, and used coercively, between military and elected officials.

Moreover, Weiner's diatribe results in redundancy, oversimplification, a voracious appetite for dirt, exploitation, more redundancy and more outrage. He calls our nuclear strategy overkill.

So is his prose.

Sentences such as "things go wrong with complex systems. The more complex they are, the more can go wrong" are too common.

In two successive pages the repetition seems to breed like chickens: "the black budget, hidden from the proving ground of open debate"; "open debate . . . must not be prohibited"; "in the name of secrecy, political debate has been stifled"; "secrecy . . . suffocates criticism." Only in the last chapter does Weiner discuss the crucial constitutional question of who should oversee the Pentagon's budget and how open should its books be.

As he says, "The era of danger is ending. The world in which the black budget was born and raised is vanishing."

That would have made a good, necessary book—how to reshape the self-confidence of a nation waking up from its cold war nightmare so that secrecy is less likely to occur.

To that end, Blank Check book offers little direction.