A journey through “the agency responsible for some of the most important military and civil technologies of the past hundred years.”
Intercept security editor Weinberger (Imaginary Weapons: A Journey Through the Pentagon’s Scientific Underworld, 2006, etc.) again sets her sights on the Department of Defense, combining historical context with a focus on waste, fraud, and abuse in one realm of the gigantic government agency, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, often referred to by its acronym DARPA. Cobbled together in 1958 in the aftermath of Cold War panic that the Soviet Union had launched the Sputnik satellite, the original DARPA personnel felt uncertain about their mission. The already established military services of the Army, Navy, and Air Force seemed to overlap with DARPA’s amorphous mandate. Should a military agency control the government’s rush to match or surpass the Sputnik launch? (At that time, NASA had not yet been created.) Weinberger traces how the pieces fell into place, focusing first on a detailed history of William Godel, a former military member who remained in government as a negotiator with foreign leaders. Godel’s previously low profile receives a boost from Weinberger, a tireless researcher. The ascension of Godel leads to the crispest narrative in the book; after he exits, the story loses steam due to his many successors and the many disparate projects that ended up in DARPA’s jurisdiction. Some of those projects led, at least indirectly, to the valuable creation of the nonmilitary internet plus brilliant devices that could detect tests of nuclear weapons by foreign nations. But when DARPA personnel became deeply involved in strategies to fight insurgent wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the agency waded into controversial waters that caused damage to its standing within the Pentagon.
Given the complications of writing a comprehensive book about an octopuslike agency, Weinberger handles the material well. At times, though, the reading feels like parsing a government agency annual report.