Guitarist Jeff Baxter is a founding member of Steely Dan and a member of the Doobie Brothers. The 56-year-old Baxter has eight platinum albums and two Grammys, but he likes to call himself a hippie rock guitarist with top secret clearances. Now, believe it or not, he's one of the top counterterrorism experts in the United States. “Today” national correspondent Jamie Gangel caught up with Baxter in between top-secret meetings in our nation’s capitol.
One of rock and roll's top guitarists, Jeff Baxter, is best known for his years with Steely Dan and then the Doobie Brothers. He looked the part, lived the part and even had a rocker nickname — “Skunk.”
But it turns out “Skunk” was also interested in something other than music.
Jamie Gangel: If someone had told you when you were making all those hit songs that some day you would end up a defense expert with every clearance in the world, you would have said?
Jeff Baxter: I would have said, "You're out of your mind."
It began in the mid-’80s, when Baxter started researching music technology. He then started reading about weapons systems, became a self-taught expert and, for the fun of it, wrote a five-page paper on missile defense.
Baxter: So, one day, I don't know what happened. I sat down at my Tandy 200 and wrote this paper about how to convert the Aegis weapon system — why it would make sense to convert it to do theatre missile defense because it would be on a mobile platform and give the United States a new role in NATO in the 21st century. I have no idea. I just did it.
Conservative congressmen Dana Rohrabacher and Ed Royce are Baxter’s biggest fans.
Rohrabacher: I want you to tell me we're not getting BS'd about missile defense and that it's actually going to have an impact here.
Baxter: It's a hard thing to do.
And both men say they appreciate Baxter’s outsider status.
Rohrabacher: Skunk didn’t grow up in the system. He hasn't been beaten down by the system. So his very freedom of thought and his gut-level understanding of technology contributes greatly, and people know that.
Gangel: Are people skeptical when you say you're bringing him in.
Royce: Yeah, I think a lot of people — eyebrows are raised and I think we've gotten a little bit of a hurdle at times, but after he discusses policy we turn people around pretty quick.
Apparently no one much minds the ponytail or handlebar mustache.
At the moment, Baxter chairs the Congressional Advisory Board on Missile Defense. He’s also a highly paid consultant for the likes of Northrop Grumman and General Atomics, to name a few.
Gangel: As you got further and further involved in this, weren't you ever thinking, Wait a minute, I'm a musician, I'm a rock star! [Laughter]
Baxter: Interestingly enough, most of the people grew up listening to my music, and the lieutenant commanders and majors who are now three and four star generals and admirals could sort of relate. [Laughter] You can talk the talk, but you have to walk the walk.
Gangel: Do you ever have a credibility problem?
Baxter: It's been extremely rare. I guess the credibility part was really hard amongst my friends in the music business. Because prior to 9/11, many of them just thought I was nuts. [Laughter] After 9/11, that all changed.
Baxter certainly has no credibility problem here at the missile defense agency. The boss is Lieutenant General Henry Obering.
Gangel: What does he bring to the table that other defense experts don't?
General Henry Obering: In a word: out-of-the-box thinking.
Gangel: Which means?
Obering: Meaning that he comes at problems and he comes at challenges that we may face with a very different perspective.
Gangel: Is there an example you can give me that’s not classified?
Obering: Very few. But when we were looking at how we could build some of the building blocks in the missile defense system, he brought some very innovative ideas.
Despite that contribution, Baxter has not given up his music career. In between meetings, he goes home to California to record a new album. But at the end of the day, while he still loves to play, Baxter says defense work has given him a new kind of satisfaction.
Gangel: Do you miss being a full-time rock star?
Baxter: No, because life to me is a series of adventures, chapters. I have a wall full of gold records, platinum records, awards and I'm very proud of it. But I learned what it meant to have someone say, "We need you in room 125A." And you walk in and there's just two guys there. They shake your hand and say, "Thank you very much, you did a good job." I love what I'm doing and also have the privilege … to work and be in the fight. So, to me, I'm the luckiest man alive.
The truth is that while Jeff Baxter has always been interested in defense technologies, 9/11 really did make him believe that working on national security was a kind of calling.
On a lighter note, you may wonder where his nickname "Skunk" came from. That answer is also top secret — but you can use your imagination.