NEW YORK -- Armed with a prospector's handbook and fire up by Humphrey Bogart's "Treasure of the Sierra Madre," Stanley Weiss headed off to Mexico 40 years ago in search of gold.
The results were not what the young romantic had in mind.
Instead of gold and back-stabbing adventure, the Philadelphia native struck manganese, a key metallic element used in making alloys. The find may have guaranteed Mr. Weiss a solid career, but to many, including his mother, the business seemed obscure.
"She thought I was selling magazines, not manganese," Mr. Weiss said. "Few had heard of it."
But in promoting manganese -- even writing a book about it, "Manganese: The Other Uses" -- he has also become an expert on something his folks probably would have heard of: U.S.
strategic needs. From a roving prospector of strategic minerals, Mr. Weiss is now founder and chairman of Business Executives for National Security, or BENS, and a leading voice of reason in the politicized debates on national security.
A leading non-partisan organization that lobbies for reform of the military-industrial complex, BENS makes use of its nationwide network of 1,500 members to get expert opinions on defense policy questions and to publish policy reports. Its most notable successes were lobbying for a non-partisan commission to pick military bases to close and drawing up ethics guidelines for exporting.
BENS consumes about 70 percent of his time, the 65-year-old Mr. Weiss said, quipping that business takes up the other 60 percent. He stepped down as chief executive of his manganese company, American Minerals Inc., when it merged last year with Premier Refractories Inc. to form American Premier Inc., of which he is chairman. Family also takes its share of time: Mr. Weiss' wife of 34 years, Lisa, and two children, Lori, 32, and Anthony, 28.
Although BENS is a relatively new organization, Mr. Weiss is already familiar with the military and Washington scene. After Army service from 1944 to 1946, he studied at Pennsylvania Military College and then at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.
Yet it was as an outsider that he saw how wasteful the government's military procurement system could be. American Minerals sold manganese to the government for its strategic stockpile of minerals to be used in case of war. The bureaucrats running the stockpile, Mr. Weiss discovered, were so inefficient in their purchasing "that it was almost funny."
For example, former stockpile managers seemed to insist on turning the old market maxim on its head: They bought dearly and sold cheaply. They also kept minerals long after their strategic and market value had vanished.
The stockpile still holds "chemical-grade manganese," which is useful only in making speckled bricks, Mr. Weiss said. "I wrote them 18 years ago and asked them if our new strategy was to bomb the Russians with speckled bricks. I never got a reply, but they've still got the stuff."
"I wondered if the rest of the defense industry was run as inefficiently as the stockpile," Mr. Weiss said. "I came to the conclusion that it was a big jobs program. It was pork and politics."
Business left little time for more contemplation, but in 1977, Mr. Weiss became a fellow for a year at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs. There, he realized that only a non-partisan group of business executives would have the clout and credibility to lobby for military reform. Rather than push for specific ideological goals, Mr. Weiss conceived of a group that would try to make procurement more efficient and end the wasteful rivalries inside the military.
The resulting organization, BENS, held its first meetings 10 years ago and has become a fixture in Washington, said Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
"They're not hawks or doves," Mr. Korb said. "What they're saying is, 'What kind of force can we afford, and how can we get more defense for fewer dollars?' "
BENS is a mixture of Democrats, Republicans and independents. At 10th anniversary celebrations last month in New York, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney praised the group for constructive criticism that helps "keep us honest."
When BENS was formed, it supported the military buildup under President Ronald Reagan, but cautioned that a quick influx of money would result in inefficiency and corruption -- a prophetic warning, given the defense waste that came to light later.
And five years ago, before Iraq became a U.S. enemy, Mr. Weiss perceived the dangers of selling to foreign dictatorships when an English front company tried to buy an alloy used in making nuclear reactors. Mr. Weiss became suspicious and uncovered the company. Later, he helped BENS draft guidelines on export ethics, which he said can add "moral stigma" to unethical sellers.
"The question shouldn't just be if it is legal, but if it's right," Mr. Weiss said. "We think there have to be legal constraints, and voluntary ones, too."
The government should be more active, he said, in gathering information on sales abroad. Most of the sales to Iraq were legal, he said; it was just that no one knew the extent of Iraqi purchases because the information was never analyzed.
Equally important, Mr. Weiss said, is for the military to redefine its role, something it hasn't done since a 1947 meeting of the branches. Cuts are possible, he said, but can be irresponsible unless the country knows what tasks it wants its military to perform. The current lineup of two land armies, four air forces and four space programs is unworkable, he said, as is the wasteful annual haggling over the budget. Defense budgets should run three years, he said, to allow for rational purchasing and planning.
As a businessman, Mr. Weiss is especially attracted to the idea of economic security, a key plank in President-elect Bill Clinton's campaign. But Mr. Weiss' conclusion -- that many defense contractors are too inefficient to survive true competition in the free market -- is sure to be unpopular with a candidate who promised to save jobs and drew support from areas, such as California, that are hurt by defense cuts.
Mr. Weiss, for example, scoffs at the idea that a defense contractor could suddenly become a high-speed train manufacturer.
"These companies have no culture of competition," Mr. Weiss said. "They'd want a 10-year fixed contract, which would be fine for them, but wouldn't wean them away from the government."
Ultimately, he said, the government will have to realize that today's problems require decisions as tough as any in the past. Characteristically blunt, he says the government will have to face facts: "Some companies will just have to go under."