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.

During the Reagan years Marshall helped write a secret document that called for the United States to have the ability to fight and win a nuclear war with Russia. “Well ahead of most Sovietologists, Mr. Marshall noticed weaknesses of Soviet society,” reads the Journal profile. “In 1977, he focused on the environmental and demographic crises that were undermining the Soviet system.” Associates of his have no recollection of Marshall’s ever having expressed such views. The ex-Pentagon man says, “Until the very end he was a major promoter of the line that ‘The Russians are coming and they’re 10 feet tall.'”

Late into 1989–after the fall of the Berlin wall and shortly before Mikhail Gorbachev’s ouster in the Soviet Union–Marshall was insisting that high levels of military spending were as urgently needed as ever. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much uncertainty about the future as there is today,” he said.

Since the collapse of Communism, Marshall has spent much energy hunting for a suitable threat to replace Boris the Bear. He first turned his attention to North Korea, with a 1991 ONA report concluding that in the event of war, Pyongyang’s troops could wipe out Seoul within ten days and US forces would be unable to do much to stop them. After it became apparent that North Korea was on the verge of mass starvation and collapse, Marshall turned his attention to China. An ONA study from the mid-nineties stated that Beijing’s military was modernizing so rapidly that the People’s Liberation Army would soon be able to defeat the United States in a regional conflict in Asia. A second ONA report, prepared for the agency by RAND, estimated that Beijing is spending about $140 billion a year on defense. That figure is more than twice as high as other high-end estimates and seven to eight times higher than commonly accepted low-end ones. In 1997 yet another ONA-sponsored study ominously concluded that China viewed the United States as a declining superpower and was scheming to exploit America’s military weakness.

Such conclusions are highly dubious. China’s military capabilities are modest. The country’s ground-troop strength has been cut in half–to 2 million–since the seventies, and most of its soldiers field weapons that are a quarter-century old. Beijing’s air force doesn’t have a single long-range bomber, and according to a story in Time this past June, its entire nuclear arsenal “packs about as much explosive power as what the U.S. stuffs into one Trident submarine.”

Marshall has also been an enthusiastic supporter of Star Wars and related schemes. Just last year he gave secret testimony before the Rumsfeld Commission, which issued a report stating that the United States could face a ballistic missile threat from countries such as Iraq and North Korea within a very short time. Its recommendations led to legislation, signed by President Clinton this year, mandating the deployment of a multibillion-dollar ballistic missile shield “as soon as technologically feasible.”

Marshall’s pivotal position in the military gravy train became clear in 1997, when incoming Defense Secretary Cohen proposed downgrading the ONA’s status. A group of Congressional hawks and defense executives led by Jim Roche, a former Marshall aide now at Northrop Grumman, immediately mounted a fierce counterattack to protect their man. Marshall’s friends in the press also weighed in, with letters and articles appearing in outlets such as the Washington Times, Aviation Week, the Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal. “Americans don’t go to sleep at night worrying about how we’ll win the next war,” Paul Gigot wrote in the Journal. “Andy Marshall does, which is why Americans ought to worry that he’s being banished to outer Siberia by a witless and bureaucratic Pentagon.” Cohen swiftly backed off and Marshall remains at his post.