Seventy-eight-year-old Andrew Marshall runs the Office of Net Assessment from a small office on the third floor of the Pentagon. It’s a small shop by Pentagon standards–it currently has a staff of twelve–but also an influential one, with a slew of Marshall’s former staffers having gone on to industry, academia and military think tanks.
Marshall appears infrequently in the press, but when he does he is treated with the sort of reverence normally reserved for incoming presidents. A 1998 article in Defense News called the ONA an agency that “funds innovative studies on futuristic threats, often ones that the rest of the Pentagon is fearful of tackling.” A Wall Street Journal profile a few years earlier described Marshall as someone “struggling to save the U.S. armed forces from becoming paralyzed by their own successes in the Cold War and Desert Storm.”
Most fawning of all was an April 1999 Washingtonian article by Jay Winik (author of On the Brink, a cartoonish history of the cold war that argues that caped crusaders Elliott Abrams, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Richard Perle and Max Kampelman brought down the Soviet Union). Sprawling over ten pages, Winik’s story called Marshall “the most influential man you’ve never heard of,” a “legend among the national security elite” and a “key figure, even the central figure, in reshaping America’s military for the next century.” According to Winik, Marshall’s powers of foresight are so extraordinary that he was one of the first people on the planet to understand the risk posed by AIDS. “This is going to be much bigger than anyone realizes,” Winik has Marshall telling his staff at the ONA in the early eighties. Soon, Marshall’s office was on the phone with the Centers for Disease Control, urging the agency to devote more resources to the emerging scourge.
Critics of Marshall say his reputation rests on his ability to provide the philosophical scaffolding required by the military-industrial complex. “Andy’s one of those defense intellectuals who’re always there to come up with the stuff that backs the needs of industry,” says an ex-Pentagon staffer and longtime Marshall watcher who asked not to be named. (Marshall declined a request for an on-the-record interview.)
Marshall grew up in Detroit and received a graduate degree in economics from the University of Chicago. He took a job at the RAND Corporation in 1949 and worked with nuclear intellectuals such as Herman Kahn and Albert Wohlstetter. While there, Marshall and several colleagues played an important if hidden role in the 1960 presidential election when they served as advisers to John Kennedy and devised the bogus “missile gap,” which JFK used to pillory Richard Nixon.
In 1972 Henry Kissinger hired Marshall to work at the National Security Council, and he was soon appointed head of the Pentagon’s newly created ONA, which was charged with rating the threat to national security posed by the Soviet Union. One of his earliest studies proclaimed that the CIA was seriously underestimating Soviet military spending and power. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger promptly used the report to bludgeon Congress into allocating more money to counter the Russian bear.