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Analysis

A Tribute to Pentagon Whistleblower Ernie Fitzgerald

Why “America’s best-known whistleblower” was “the most hated person in the Air Force”
(Photo: US Air Force)

When the Pentagon finds itself unprepared for war, it turns on the afterburners to defend itself. That’s how an unready Defense Department ended up spending $50 billion on customized armored vehicles to defend American troops against roadside bombs that only cost a few hundred dollars in the post-9/11 wars. Yet no matter how much money the Pentagon spent, it never had enough to defuse A. Ernest Fitzgerald’s heavy leather satchel.

“Ernie”—that’s what everyone called him—lugged that tactical nuclear briefcase to more than 50 Capitol Hill hearings spread over the course of more than three decades. He’d pluck internal Pentagon documents, and his own calculations, from that battered brown bag to show lawmakers how the Pentagon was wasting billions. But he’d ease the sting of the serious charges inside his civilian rucksack with the supple drawl of his native Alabama, which was occasionally pierced by a cackle that helped keep him sane during trying times.

Ernie Fitzgerald, described in the pages of the Washington Post as “America’s best-known whistle blower,” was also “the most hated person in the Air Force,” according to Verne Orr, secretary of the Air Force during the Reagan Administration. By the time Fitzgerald died on January 31, 2019, in Falls Church, Virginia, he had also become the patron saint of government whistleblowers. He was 92.

His was an American adventure, but he didn’t ride the current of popular opinion—that more is always better—when it came to defending the nation. He was instead a strong swimmer against the tide of conventional thinking, one who believed that smarter spending would benefit both troops and taxpayers.

Ernie Fitzgerald’s true legacy will be the trail he blazed for those willing to question the status quo and to challenge those in power who have been charmed by its comforts.

“Being around people like Ernie Fitzgerald was one of the main reasons I loved working in the Pentagon,” said Chuck Spinney, himself a one-time military malcontent, and one who ended up on the cover of Time Magazine in 1983 questioning President Reagan’s defense buildup. “There is something about military institutions that attracts a very few fun-loving, brilliant mavericks who love to throw rocks at the institutional boat.”

Fitzgerald was a World War II Navy veteran who earned a degree in industrial engineering from the University of Alabama in 1951. He began his career as a cost-cutter in the aerospace business before joining the Air Force as a civilian “management systems deputy” in 1965. It was such a target-rich environment, he’d say, that he willingly took a $10,000 pay cut, to $23,000 annually, to work for the Pentagon, People magazine later recounted.

In November 1968, he was testifying before a congressional panel after reports surfaced that the projected cost of a fleet of 120 Lockheed C-5As had ballooned from $3 billion to nearly $5 billion. Senator William Proxmire asked him if the program’s estimated cost had really soared by $2 billion. Fitzgerald began by sticking to the Pentagon’s pre-approved script, unspooling rhetoric designed to obfuscate rather than illuminate. But then he quietly rebelled. “Your figure,” he told the Wisconsin Democrat, “could be approximately right.”

His life would never be the same.

Less than a year later, the Air Force said Fitzgerald would be losing his job in January 1970 as part of a wholesale trimming of civilian personnel that had nothing to do with his testimony. Fitzgerald fought his dismissal, and in 1973 won his case before the Civil Service Commission, which ordered him reinstated with $80,000 in back pay. He went back to work, but he grumbled that the Air Force assigned him to minor-league matters. So in 1974 he sued the US government again, this time to regain his original responsibilities, and after eight years he won again, along with $200,000 in legal fees, according to People.

Ernie wasn’t disclosing top-secret war plans; he was disclosing profligate military spending. The fact that the Pentagon couldn’t then—and still can’t—tell the difference was their problem, not his.

He had made some major-league enemies—like the commander-in-chief—along the way. “I said get rid of that son of a bitch,” President Richard Nixon barked about the meddlesome bean-counter on January 31, 1973, 46 years to the day before Fitzgerald’s death. The words were captured on the same Oval Office taping system that would drive Nixon from the White House the next year. Yet it wasn’t the cruelty of Nixon’s order that stung. Rather it was its logic: “The point was not that he was complaining about the overruns,” Nixon confided to top aide John Ehrlichman, “but that he was doing it in public.”

That was always Ernie’s way. He had an old-fashioned sense that the people who funded the US military, and their elected representatives, had every right to know how their money was being spent. After all, he wasn’t disclosing top-secret war plans; he was disclosing profligate military spending. The fact that the Pentagon couldn’t then—and still can’t—tell the difference was their problem, not his. So after that Nixon tape became public following his resignation, Fitzgerald sued Nixon for violating Fitzgerald’s constitutional rights. It made Fitzgerald “a folk hero to other whistle blowers,” according to the New York Times. Nixon ended up settling the case for $142,000. (Fitzgerald said he was miffed when Nixon sent him a check. “I thought it would be small bills in a brown paper bag,” he told People magazine in 1985, in the kind of dig that made him an acquired taste for many at the Defense Department.)

But for those of us lucky enough to tag along on his Pentagon adventures, Fitzgerald spun phrases that regularly surfaced in the news and in congressional hearings. Costly warplanes were “collections of overpriced parts, flying in formation,” he’d chuckle. When it came to gold-plated weapons, he’d cite Fitzgerald’s First Law: "There are only two phases of a program. The first is 'It's too early to tell.' The second: 'It's too late to stop.’” His jests could make you laugh, but they were bittersweet because they rang true.

Fitzgerald and a handful of colleagues toiled in a cramped office on the Pentagon’s top floor, its file cabinets crammed with reports, and reams of studies and ledgers spilling off desks and shelves. “Frequently, when Ernie had hatched a new scheme to pressure the Air Force into giving up some accounting scam or yet another outrageous giveaway to some overrunning contractor, he'd come by my office to share his latest plot,” recalled Pierre Sprey, a civilian Air Force engineer who fought for the light and agile F-16 fighter over the service’s preferred, but lumbering and more costly, F-15. “He always prefaced these gleeful accounts with ‘Pierre, we're gonna he'p 'em do right.’"

Known as the “attic fanatics,” Fitzgerald and his colleagues became a conduit for other disgruntled Pentagon insiders—“closet patriots” who “committed truth,” according to Ernie—to tell what they knew. American taxpayers, they averred, were being hosed by an alliance consisting of the Pentagon, the defense industry, and their allies in Congress. Too often, a revolving door among the key players let them change sides, rarely in the taxpayers’ favor.

Ernie Fitzgerald depicted by political cartoonist Herbert L. Block.
(A 1985 Herblock Cartoon, © The Herb Block Foundation. Used with permission.)

Fitzgerald fought that iron triangle by pushing for “should-cost” analyses inside the Pentagon. These tried to wring excessive overhead and other well-marbled fat out of defense contracts that had grown flabby because of a lack of competition, and the chummy overseers eager to trade their Air Force blue uniforms for post-service pinstriped mufti. The price the Pentagon was willing to pay for new weapons too often was based on what over-priced older weapons had cost, compounding inefficiencies generation after generation.

He discovered that so-called “direct labor costs” for a Boeing cruise missile were $14 an hour, but that the Pentagon was paying $114, that People profile noted. His influence only grew when he turned his sights from gigantic programs and their mind-numbing data to simple spare parts. He helped bring to light a 34-cent plastic stool-leg cap that cost the Air Force $916.55, and a simple airplane maintenance tool that cost $11,492. ''It took seven engineers a total of 63 hours to design a straight, three-inch piece of wire,'' Fitzgerald groused. The Pentagon’s bill: $14,835.

While he could come across as a genial—but quick-witted—white-haired bookkeeper, Fitzgerald could turn into a snarling watchdog when he sniffed mischief. His bites drew blood, especially when amplified through his allies on Capitol Hill and those in the press who relished man-bites-Pentagon stories. He authored The High Priests of Waste, about his early Pentagon years, in 1972, and The Pentagonists: An Insider's View of Waste, Mismanagement and Fraud in Defense Spending in 1989. His official Air Force biography, including his membership in engineering groups, also noted he was a director of the Fund for Constitutional Government and ex-chairman of the National Taxpayers Union. “Ernie was the guiding light for the Project on Military Procurement,” recalled Dina Rasor, who in 1981 founded the group that would become the Project On Government Oversight in 1990. “No matter how they treated him, he survived with his wicked sense of humor.”

Read the transcript of Senator Grassley's full remarks.

Fitzgerald fought the good fight, but by 1996 he conceded he was losing the war. "Some of the Pentagon scams we once deplored are viewed as virtues,” he said as he received the Paul Douglas Ethics in Government Award. “The unit costs of defense are scandalously high, and going up. Porking-up contracts for political purposes, always present, but formerly stoutly denied, is now a good thing. It makes good jobs.” Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican and Fitzgerald ally, echoed those very same concerns just this past July.

But Ernie Fitzgerald’s name has been salted throughout Pentagon studies and lore, and in the history books of the US military over the past half-century. His true legacy will be the trail he blazed for those willing to question the status quo and to challenge those in power who have been charmed by its comforts. “Mr. Fitzgerald’s fight to retain his job after blowing the whistle on cost overruns on the C-5 aircraft program was a landmark moment in the effort to protect the rights of whistleblowers,” then-acting Pentagon Inspector General Thomas Gimble said as he presented him with the IG’s Distinguished Civilian Service Medal when Fitzgerald stepped down from his Pentagon job 13 years ago this month.

Fittingly, Fitzgerald’s retirement ceremony following his 42-year Pentagon career didn’t take place inside that building. Instead, it was held on Capitol Hill, beyond the reach of the Pentagon’s guns, as well as its armor.