Dina Rasor: blowing the whistle on the Pentagon

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

''I guess this is something of a sexist thing to say, but I didn't play army or tanks when I was little.''

Dina Rasor, who lives on Capitol Hill with her husband, Tom Lawson, dog, Bonnie, and boa constrictor, Heracles, anchors an errant strand of hair behind her ear. ''I'm not the John Wayne type,'' she says. ''I find weapons repulsive.''

Pentagon officials must devoutly wish that she had once thrilled to the sight of tanks on parade or choked back emotion as B-52 bombers filled the sky, because this 25-year-old woman has them squarely in her sights.

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Dina Rasor (pronounced ''Deena Razor'') is the director of the Project on Military Procurement, which aims, among other things, to make the public aware of the ''waste, fraud, and fat'' in the US defense budget and to encourage and assist whistle-blowers in exposing such abuses.

''We are examining defense spending to see if the American taxpayer is gaining increased security for his defense dollar,'' Ms. Rasor declares.

She explains that her organization, an arm of the National Taxpayers Legal Fund, ''is taking a serious look at howm . . . defense money is being spent, whatm we are getting for that money, and whom is benefiting from large defense expenditures.''

As a short-range goal, the project seeks to subject military ''spending abuses'' to public and congressional scrutiny. ''Our long-range goal is . . . to reform the military acquisition system to produce effective, reliable, and less expensive national defense,'' Ms. Rasor observes in an interview in her cramped Massachusetts Avenue office here.

Since founding the project last February, she has devoted most of her time to probing the M-1 tank, the Maverick air-to-ground missile, airborne warning and control system aircraft, and cruise missiles.

Much of her information on these weapons systems comes from assorted whistle-blowers in the defense establishment, whom she refers to affectionately as ''my closet patriots.'' ''They are people who've been inside the system for 20 to 30 years and just can't take it anymore,'' she exclaims.

What these ''closet patriots'' bring her, she says, is information ''on what's going wrong,'' and usually enough of it ''that I can present the case to the public.'' Often she does this by alerting newspaper reporters to what she has learned. Recently she aired her findings on the problem-ridden M-1 tank to the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.

None of her contacts pass on secret information, Ms. Rasor insists. If offered any she would turn it down flatly, she says. ''It is not right for me to have classified documents. In fact, I can go through channels to get them sanitized or de-classified, which I do.''

Where her whistle-blowers are concerned, she says, ''I'm the classic front. And there's a reason for that. These people are going to get into trouble if they come forward.'' According to her, most whistle-blowers ''have a sincere belief that if they come clean everything will be right and they will be vindicated. But that's just not how the system works. The system squashes these people.''

Although she has considerably irritated the Army with claims that its new M-1 tank program is little short of an $18 billion disaster, Ms. Rasor apparently has not been subjected to any reprisals for her outspokenness.

Defense officials ''often try to question your credibility and Pentagon flacks have been very rude to me at times,'' she asserts. But she says she has no proof that her telephones are being tapped, for instance. ''Though I have had several cases where the Army has said something back to me that I've only said to a reporter over the phone,'' she recalls. ''So I have a suspicion.''

''A lot of my closet patriots have their phones tapped, so the Pentagon knows all about us,'' Ms. Rasor says. Indeed, she claims that pressure on them to halt their activities is ''getting worse,'' but she is reluctant to go into details.

A number of whistle-blowers have kept Ms. Rasor abreast of the problems that have beset the M-1 tank throughout its development. She says she has focused considerable attention on the tank, ''not because I want to pick on the Army,'' but because, as she claims, the tank had undergone a ''shocking (cost) increase'' in 1980, rocketing from $1.5 million to $2.5 million per tank. She also claims it is bedeviled by numerous design flaws -- from flammable hydraulic fluid to insufficient armor protection -- that cast doubts on its ability to defeat Soviet tanks. The Army rejects such assertions out of hand.

In Dina Rasor's view, the M-1 suffers from so many design deficiencies that ''the best thing for the soldier would be to cancel it.'' The Army could rely on upgraded M-48 and M-60 tanks, she says.

But she is alive to the political realities surrounding the tank. ''I know that once a weapon system has gone as far as the M-1 has, it has a political constituency. You have a program manager whose career is on the line. You have a group of 300 to 400 people that are working in the Pentagon who want that weapon system to go through.

''You've got developers and people in the service who have put their reputations on this weapons system. Careers are to be made. The people involved will do anything to make that weapon go through.''

She says she feels ''kind of sorry'' for the Army. ''I think they were saddled with a tank they did not want and they have to defend it.''

The Army does not seem to want her pity. It claims that the M-1 is the best tank in the world and that the majority of its problems have been corrected. Lt. Col. Richard Highlander, until recently chief spokesman for the tank, says that Ms. Rasor has not been fair on the M-1. In his view her criticism is based on a reading of old reports that do not take into account the resolution of many of the tank's problems.

Ms. Rasor has not simply studied the M-1 from afar. She has had what the Pentagon would delight in calling ''hands on'' experience. Last summer, as a member of a Senate inspection group, she drove the tank at Ft. Hood, Texas, and fired its 105-mm main gun. ''It's an enormous noise,'' she recalls. ''It's very hard to keep from being rattled. When I got back I was sore and bruised and exhausted. It was about 115 degrees in that tank.''

Though conceding that Ms. Rasor is ''reasonably well educated and articulate, '' Colonel Highlander insists that she is not ''a tank person'' and is often not in possession of the ''objective facts.''

''She makes a good spokesperson,'' he says, ''but I personally wonder why the group is less than open about who their sources are.'' He prefers to exclude research and development costs when putting a price on the M-1. Each tank costs

Colonel Highlander clearly feels Ms. Rasor is something of a thorn in the side of the Pentagon, but says that to the best of his knowledge she has not been placed under surveillance for her activities. He confirms, moreover, that she has not made use of any classified information.

The project's probe of cruise missiles may not have been as exhaustive as that of the M-1, but Ms. Rasor says she was ''absolutely stunned'' when one of her assistants tracked down a General Accounting Office report claiming that cruise missile guidance systems suffered from ''serious design flaws.''

The cruise, which is to be deployed in sea, ground, and air-launched versions , is a weapon ''that may not deliver at all,'' she says. In her view the missiles suffer from ''inherent problems'' and ''can get lost.''

An industry spokesman familiar with cruise missiles concedes that a few ''are not going to get where they're supposed to'' in battle. But he points out that they have been tested ''in every conceivable way'' and insists that ''if there was any question in the Pentagon's mind that they didn't work properly, it wouldn't be buying them.''

Ms. Rasor retorts: ''I'm not against technology. Technology and electronics are great when you can get them to work realistically.''

While studying for a bachelor of arts degree in political science from the University of California at Berkeley, Ms. Rasor worked as a reporter for KCBS-FM in San Francisco, producing a documentary on the politics of the city's waterfront. She has worked for ABC News as an editorial assistant, and during a stint with the National Taxpayers Union she led its investigation of the Lockheed C-5A transport plane's wing-strengthening program, which came under congressional scrutiny.

Anne Zill, who is on the board of the National Taxpayers Legal Fund, views Dina Rasor's work as ''guerrilla activity,'' which she says is having ''measurable success.'' She feels that it is in the Defense Department's ''best long-term interest to have a thorn in its side like Dina Rasor. It's a mind-boggling sum of money that goes over there [to the Pentagon].''

Says Ms. Rasor: ''A lot of people tell me what I'm trying to do, what I'm trying to get across, is really crazy. But I think you have to plant the seed and let the public know something is wrong.

''If we're going to buy weapons, let's buy weapons that can win and let's not spend so much money on them that we end up busting the budget.''

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