An Interview with Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter

A look inside Baxter’s journey from music to defense intelligence


Many often wonder how Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, famed lead guitarist for the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan, came to be a well-known figure in the Intelligence Community. Following a meeting with the USGIF Young Professionals Group at GEOINT 2012 in October, Baxter took the time to sit down with trajectory Managing Editor Kristin Quinn and tell his story. It’s a journey that began with a mudslide, some magazine subscriptions, and an impromptu missile defense paper, leading to a life that Baxter describes as beyond his wildest dreams.

Where would you say your journey from the music industry into the defense world first began?

In 1994, I wrote a paper about how AEGIS, which is a U.S. Navy system originally designed to defend American carrier battle groups, might be modified to do theater missile defense.

So, you just one day decided to sit down and write the paper?

Pretty much. I had some input from a couple friends, one of whom mentioned a capability to track the space shuttle with a certain kind of radar, which happened to be the same kind of radar on which the U.S. Navy’s AEGIS system is based. I asked a friend to do some math for me to test my hunch that the same radar could track a missile warhead. Then I wrote a paper based on that knowledge and gave it to Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who then gave it to the vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), who asked, “Is this guy from Raytheon or Boeing?” Dana said, “No, he’s a guitar player for the Doobie Brothers.” So, I guess that piqued his interest. The next thing I know I was offered an interesting position to be the chairman of the Civilian Advisory Board for Ballistic Missile Defense for HASC. That sort of opened up a door for me to end up working in the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO), which then morphed into the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), which then morphed into the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). And so I went to work as an adviser for the director of SDIO and the director of BMDO, and then two directors for MDA, and also as a consultant for Lawrence Livermore’s Laser Advisory Board.

How did you know Congressman Rohrabacher?

Dana and I had been friends. He and I had been put in contact by a music attorney who knew his national security adviser at the time. I had been working as a reserve officer for the Los Angeles Police Department, from which I recently retired. There were some law enforcement issues that Dana needed input on.

What initially sparked your interest in these topics and led you to write the paper?

I was reading a lot of trade magazines, especially Aviation Week and Jane’s Defense. Much of the information I gained from that I was applying in the musical instrument business. At the time, back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the companies that designed musical instruments and video and audio recording equipment were just beginning to apply digital technologies for music recording and musical instrument design. Up until then, nearly everything was being recorded in an analog format, but the Defense Department and the government were exploring technologies to do things digitally instead of analog. As I began to see some of the technologies that were emerging, especially in areas like data storage, new data-processing algorithms based on digital technology—and having been somewhat of a computer geek anyways—I saw opportunities to translate some of that technology into the commercial world. So I started working with teams that were designing simple digital two- and four-track recorders for a company called Akai, and guitar synthesizers and other music-processing ideas for a company called Roland, both of which were exploring this new technology.

It sounds like you drew a lot of parallels between the two worlds.

Well, my dad had always taught me when you have some thoughts, put them down on paper to help you organize them. And so I just sat down to my Tandy 200 and pounded the paper out. It was stream of consciousness and I didn’t know what to do with it, so that’s why I gave it to the Congressman.

How did your interest in defense technology progress after writing the paper?

I got more and more into it because the people I was working with gave me opportunities to be involved—to help with system design, understand different ways to approach the architecture, and do some Red Teaming. I realized I had an inherent understanding of radar, because radar is really just music on steroids—a fact that was underscored for me when I took Tom Ager’s radar course at NGA. Not long after, I was introduced to John Lauder over at the NRO through B.M. “Dusty” Rhoades, and then I started doing some consulting for the NRO. Lauder got me involved with NIMA at just about the time General Clapper came over to head up NIMA and morph it into NGA. They were looking for somebody who approached problem solving from a different point of view. I didn’t have some of the knowledge that those folks did, but I also didn’t have some of the constraints, and it’s been an honor and a privilege to work with the folks at NGA.

How would you describe your different approach to problem solving?

For one thing, I read an article by William Nolte in Studies in Intelligence, way back when NGA first started—he was talking about trying to teach intelligence analysts how to improvise, because analysis is partially science but also partially art. Nolte’s point was that maybe it would be possible to teach analysts how to do what musicians do when they improvise, and it struck a chord with me immediately, no pun intended. I started thinking about it, and actually contacted Nolte. We realized that maybe there was a way to do that, to use the concept of jazz improvisation, which in itself is actually an analytical process, and apply it to intelligence analysis.

So you approach problems from a more artistic angle?

I think so, being that I am a bit of a diode-head, as are most guitar players. Guitar players are all about plugging stuff in to other stuff, searching for new and different sounds. I have a self-taught technology background because I learned how to repair and design guitars and electronics myself. You stick a knife in a toaster and immediately learn which way the electrons go. Same with trying to apply what I know of the art of music to the art of intelligence analysis. I found that, at least for some people, because I hadn’t grown up in the IC or DoD culture, they felt I had something to offer in terms of a different point of view about approaching and solving problems in the intelligence world, and being able to come to some non-typical conclusions. I have also watched the tendency of the U.S. government, as with most other governments, to have difficulty shedding the belief that throwing money at a problem is the best solution. A good example of why this may not be the right way to go is in the experience of the band The Knack. In a period where most successful bands were spending tens and, in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars to record an album, The Knack created their first album for $11,000 and managed to sell millions of copies of the single, “My Sharona,” and the overall album. They used more art and less money. I think the U.S. Marine Corps knows something about this as well.

I understand you continue to make music. How do you balance these two very different areas of expertise?

I definitely still make music. My last project was working on the final Beach Boys album a few months ago. I have no plans to ever give up that part of my life. For a long time I was doing less on the music side and more on the missile defense and the government side, because frankly, I’d had a lot of success in the music business and was intrigued by this new path. This to me was a challenge, and I found there was a deep, rewarding satisfaction I never had really experienced before. My dad was former U.S. Army—five years active, 20 years reserve—and he and I had always spent a lot of time discussing military history; so I had some foundation for the defense world and was always curious about it. I was a big fan of Winston Churchill—my dad had me read all of his works. It just seemed like I came to a point in my life where a number of these interests converged, and I found a way to leverage it.

What makes you passionate about national security? Is it a matter of patriotism?

I love my country. I’ve traveled around the world and seen what the alternatives are, most of which are not very pretty. I’ve been to some of the best places you can go. I’ve also been to some of the most horrifying places in the world. When you see what the real world is like, you come back and get off the airplane and kiss the ground, and want to preserve this country and what it stands for. That a nation could be built on the concept that individual freedom as the most important function of a society and government is unheard of in most places on this planet and in the history of mankind. Having been a musician in the U.S. means I have the freedom to make and play the music I want to. I have a friend who was an ambassador, and told me about the improvisation police from when he was growing up behind the Iron Curtain. If they came into a venue and heard you playing a guitar solo that was not on the original record, they could shut you down and arrest you, because you were exercising freedom of ideas, breaking the mold, thinking outside the accepted norm. Many people in this country don’t realize that kind of thing was and still is a reality. I also remember reading about how the Taliban was cutting the hands off musicians in Afghanistan, took that a bit personally, and thought, “It’s time to step up.” Many of my friends in the music business have asked me how they can participate and support the DoD and the IC. I tell them they do not necessarily have to get involved directly (although some have, with great result—folks like Dan Aykroyd, Nils Lofgren, and Gary Sinise, to name a few), but that every time they play a note or sing a lyric they are striking a blow for freedom. People like the Taliban aren’t afraid of bullets. They are scared to death by something that represents freedom of thought and expression. That makes art a pretty potent weapon.

Were you entirely self-taught in defense technology?

I certainly was and am a bit of a computer geek. Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, there was no way to learn about computers other than having one and spending time with other like-minded folks. In the late ’70s, we’d had bad rains where I was living in L.A., and an older neighbor’s house flooded with mud so I helped him shovel it out. Afterward, he invited me into his study and I saw all these pictures of airplanes and missiles on the wall—it turned out he was one of the guys who had invented the Sidewinder missile. As a gift for helping him clean out his house he gave me a subscription to Aviation Week and to Jane’s Defense. It was amazing. It gave me an opportunity to dive into and learn about the cutting edge of what was going on in military and aviation. It was like taking a course in military technology.

What about your formal education?

I went to a British Embassy School for grade school, then prep school in Connecticut. I went to one year of college at Boston University and was working in a music store when somebody offered me $150,000 to play in a rock band in 1969. I mean, what would you have done? The good news is that I live in America and am something of a, I guess the term is an “autodidact.” There’s so much information available, the opportunity for self-education in this country is enormous.

Why do you believe GEOINT is important?

After my experiences at NIMA and NGA, I share the vision that pretty much all intelligence is geospatially based. Everything happens somewhere. Whether that someplace is a physical point, a point in space, or even on a network, it’s all about location. I believe GEOINT is the perfect common denominator that all the “INTs” can relate to.

What have you learned from your experiences about diversity in the Intelligence Community?

I’ve been fortunate to work with and learn from some amazing people in the Intelligence Community. Some folks would posit that when you walk into this thing with a background of making hit records, that experience doesn’t really prepare you to be able to contribute to the IC. But early on, I met some people who took a chance and said, “You know what, it’s time for a different perspective, and we’ll take a shot.” We have a saying in the music business that “everyone loves you when you play Carnegie Hall, but you really know who your friends are when you are playing the clubs.” I will always appreciate the folks who gave me the chance to get involved in this new part of my life. I believe art plays a large role in creating the best analytic product, and artistic capabilities relate to one’s culture. Some cultures do certain things better than others, some have niches of expertise, and they all certainly have different perspectives. Monolithic cultures have a tendency to analyze monolithically. Because America is such a melting pot, we have the advantage of analytic teams with backgrounds from many different cultures. That gives the U.S. a tremendous advantage. It means the IC can approach a problem from a number of facets and levels of experience. That’s the way you deliver the best product. The cultural diversity in the Intelligence Community is the secret weapon for the U.S.

You just spoke with USGIF’s Young Professionals Group at the GEOINT Symposium. What did that mean to you?

This was my first opportunity to spend time with the Young Professionals Group. It was a tremendous experience for me and it’s something I would like to continue participating in, because I would like to do the same for those folks as others did for me. Besides creating the YPG, the USGIF is extremely relevant for a number of reasons, and the GEOINT Symposium has become quite an event. Part of the real value out of all of this are the opportunities for people to meet others they would have never met in any other forum, to share ideas, and then from those ideas grow capabilities, which then feed back into the Community. It’s like a factory for manufacturing intellectual concepts.

Where are you right now and what’s down the road for you?

I still work as a consultant for NGA, the NRO, and OUSD(I), among other organizations. I still live in L.A., and commute back and forth a minimum of 10 days a month to Washington or other locations that are related to my work. I have been blessed with an opportunity to make a difference. My life has been beyond my wildest dreams. Being a “rock star” in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s—life doesn’t get any better—unless you’re Louis XIV or something. I appreciate why I was able to have the success that I’ve had because of being born in the U.S. Hopefully I’m going to finish my solo record and go out and do a little touring again. I believe everyone has their own set of objectives and aspirations. My first were related to music and the music business, and I have fulfilled much of what I set out to do. In the past 15 years or so being involved with the IC, a whole new set of challenges opened up to me and, as a result, I set some new goals, one of which is to support USGIF and the Intelligence Community in growing and becoming all that it can be in an increasingly complex, dangerous, and rapidly-changing world. I’m seeing major cultural, technological, and fundamental changes for the better in the Intelligence Community. Leveraging concepts like virtual reality, immersive analytical environments, breakthroughs in neuroscience, unconventional methodologies, gaming platforms, revolutionary ways to deal with data, and more, is the way of the future for the IC. I believe that the analyst is still the center of the IC universe, and I am excited to see and hopefully play a part in how all that shakes out. And when I finally leave this mortal coil—or when it’s time to just go read books and build guitars again—I hope I leave it a little bit better than when I came and fulfill the expectations of the people who gave me the opportunity to be a part of this very special group of folks known as the IC.

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