Skunk Baxter, Doobie Brother, Counterterror Advisor
The story of how former Steely Dan and Doobie Brothers guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter became a major player in the national security game reappears every few months, including fronting today’s Wall Street Journal. It never ceases to amuse me.
Rocker Jeff Baxter Moves And Shakes In National Security — Once With Doobie Brothers, Now in Counterterrorism, He Has Ear of Pentagon (WSJ p. 1 $)
Jeff Baxter played psychedelic music with Ultimate Spinach, jazz-rock with Steely Dan and funky pop with the Doobie Brothers. But in the last few years he has made an even bigger transition: Mr. Baxter, who goes by the nickname “Skunk,” has become one of the national-security world’s well-known counterterrorism experts. A wiry man who wears a beret to many of his meetings, Mr. Baxter, who is now 56 years old, has gone from a rock career that brought him eight platinum records to a spot in the small constellation of consultants paid to help both policy makers and defense contractors better understand the way terrorists think and plan attacks. The guitarist-turned-defense-consultant does regular work for the Department of Defense and the nation’s intelligence community, chairs a congressional advisory board on missile defense, and has lucrative consulting contracts with companies like Science Applications International Corp., Northrop Grumman Corp. and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. He says he is in increasing demand for his unconventional views of counterterrorism.
“We thought turntables were for playing records until rappers began to use them as instruments, and we thought airplanes were for carrying passengers until terrorists realized they could be used as missiles,” says Mr. Baxter, who sports a ponytail and handlebar mustache. “My big thing is to look at existing technologies and try to see other ways they can be used, which happens in music all the time and happens to be what terrorists are incredibly good at.”
One of Mr. Baxter’s clients — General Atomics’ vice president Mike Campbell — likens him to a “gluon,” a term drawn from quantum physics that refers to the particles binding together the basic building blocks of all matter. Contractors and policymakers say Mr. Baxter can see past bureaucratic boundaries and integrate information drawn from a variety of sources, though some who have worked with him say he can also be a self-promoter.
Mr. Baxter can speak the acronym-heavy vernacular of the professional defense consultant, but he would never be mistaken for one of the hardened ex-military men who fill the ranks of the industry. He rarely wears ties, is fond of self-deprecating jokes, makes frequent popular-culture references, and peppers his speech with casual profanity. He also often appears on VH1 music retrospectives. Still, he’s careful not to discuss current or past projects that might be classified and keeps to a punishing schedule. One morning recently, a black government-issued sport-utility vehicle picked him up outside a Washington cafÃƒ© as soon as he had finished breakfast and whisked him to a Pentagon agency for nearly 12 hours of meetings. That evening, he traveled to Ohio’s Wright-Patterson Air Force Base for several days of briefings and meetings. He flew 230,000 miles last year, and makes a point of dissolving brightly colored packets of vitamin supplements into his drinks to stave off illness.
Mr. Baxter, who joined his first band when he was 11, began studying journalism at Boston University, but dropped out after a year in 1969 to begin working with Ultimate Spinach, a short-lived Boston psychedelic rock band. He moved to California a short time later and became one of the six original members of the avant-garde rock group Steely Dan. He quit the band in 1974 and joined the Doobie Brothers, helping to remake its sound into a commercially appealing mix of funk and jazzy pop. Mr. Baxter left the group in 1979 after a long tour in support of its most popular album, “Minute by Minute.”
His defense work began in the 1980s, when it occurred to him that much of the hardware and software being developed for military use, like data-compression algorithms and large-capacity storage devices, could also be used for recording music. Mr. Baxter’s next-door neighbor, a retired engineer who worked on the Pentagon’s Sidewinder missile program, bought him a subscription to an aviation magazine, and he was soon reading a range of military-related publications.
Mr. Baxter began wondering whether existing military systems could be adapted to meet future threats they weren’t designed to address, a heretical concept for most defense thinkers. In his spare time, he wrote a five-page paper on a primitive Tandy computer that proposed converting the military’s Aegis program, a ship-based antiplane system, into a rudimentary missile-defense system. On a whim, he gave the paper to a friend from California, Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. To Mr. Baxter’s surprise, the congressman took it seriously, and the idea proved to be prescient: Aegis missile-defense systems have done well in tests, and the Navy says it will equip at least one ship with the antimissile system by the end of the year. “Skunk really blew my mind with that report,” Mr. Rohrabacher says. “He was talking over my head half the time, and the fact that he was a rock star who had basically learned it all on his own was mind-boggling.”
Quite so. One presumes that no one ever has to enjoin him to “think outside the box.”
The above photo is one of several that accompany a 2003 story at The GIBSON & Baldwin player, which also mentions Baxter’s career change: Jeff “Skunk” Baxter Balancing Music and Military Technology
See also: Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter: From Doobie Brother To Top Missile Defense Adviser (VH1, 2001)