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Orlando Sentinel (Florida) October 19, 2004

Star Power Helps Tout Missile Defense

By Michael Cabbage, Sentinel Space Editor

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Riki Ellison is more intent these days on stopping ballistic missiles than shifty running backs.

As president and founder of the 2-year-old Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, the football star plans to visit 20 or so states this year to rally support for a national missile shield. His small third-floor office above a bookstore here features photos of Ellison and past presidents alongside pictures of the 49ers' 1988 Super Bowl team.

"I see this as a public-safety issue more than a national-security issue," says Ellison, who at 44 looks as though he could still suit up for the 49ers next Sunday. "This is not for us to gain superiority over the world but for us to protect the American public and our way of life."

This year, Ellison's alliance will spend more than $500,000 -- "a good chunk of it" from missile-defense contractors -- to build broad public support for the idea. But Ellison notes that his organization also gets money from hundreds of individual contributors. And despite the industry's support, Ellison says he refuses to promote individual weapons systems and maintains the alliance's independence by keeping contractor representatives off his board of directors.

Ellison isn't simply a hired gun; he has been a believer in missile defense since his college days at the University of Southern California. He began working as a consultant to a Lockheed Martin missile plant in Sunnyvale, Calif., during the off-seasons of his 49ers playing days.

Other familiar faces are also spreading the gospel of missile defense. Former Doobie Brothers guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter is "Takin' It to the Streets" as a paid consultant for defense contractors and several government agencies. Baxter got involved about a decade ago after a paper he had written about mobile missile defenses caught the eye of conservative lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

"The next thing I knew, I was in the game," said Baxter, who speaks to audiences ranging from corporate gatherings to women's political groups. "It seemed obvious to me when I started looking at where the bad guys were spending their money that they were trying to get nuclear weapons and a means to deliver them."

Celebrities such as Ellison and Baxter are just one of the ways that industry is marketing the possible benefits of missile-defense programs. With the federal government spending up to $10 billion per year on developing new systems, a so-called national team of contractors -- Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics -- is quietly selling the concept at home and abroad.

Industry hasn't had to spend much time or money lobbying the government, with the White House and backers in Congress relentlessly pushing the projects. Instead, they're drumming up public support.

There is a lot to like about missile defense from the contractors' perspective: huge contracts over extended periods of time; ongoing upgrades to the systems once they are deployed; minimal accountability and oversight because of changes in Pentagon policies.

"This is too good to be true for the defense contractors," said John Pike, director of the policy-research group GlobalSecurity.org. "There is a lot of money at stake here."

`OUR WAY OF LIFE'

Media events, public meetings and trade shows are among the places missile-defense advocates reach out to potential converts. Lapel pins, glossy fact sheets, computer mouse pads, military patches, baseball caps and T-shirts promote the systems and the contractors that build them.

Promotional videos lasting five minutes or so are screened for media, community groups and other audiences. One video by the Boeing Co. touts the Airborne Laser, a project that attempts to put a missile-killing laser aboard a jumbo jet. The program has seen its budget double while suffering years of delays.

As the video begins, a narrator intones: "Recent world events brought the resolve and mind-set of terrorists and the countries that harbor them into sharp focus."

No terrorist group ever has been known to possess any missile that the Airborne Laser would be effective against. Nevertheless, images of the 2002 war in Afghanistan flash on the screen as a voice asks, "Where will the next attack take place? How will it affect the United States or our allies?"

A video for the Patriot system's latest missile features a piano playing softly as flag-waving soldiers march to war. Another clip shows children and parents at a Little League baseball game as a nuclear-missile explosion lights up the screen. The message: Missile defense is essential to preserving "our way of life."

Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists and a missile-defense critic, says insecurity is a fundamental reason for the systems' appeal.

"There are people out there who feel the world is crazy and we shouldn't be limiting our military capability in any way," she noted. "Once you buy into that philosophy, then people want to have every capability you can think of."

PUBLIC OPINION

It's unclear whether the marketing is changing anyone's mind.

Ellison has taken his case to battleground states in the presidential election this fall, where a series of missile-defense polls commissioned by his nonprofit group are designed to influence public opinion as much as assess it.

One such poll, taken in Florida from July 15 to 19 by Public Strategies Inc., showed state residents thought missile defense should be a top U.S. priority by a 66 percent-to-25 percent margin. It also found missile defense was considered "money well spent" by 74 percent.

The phrasing of the survey, however, appears designed to elicit certain answers. The priority question, for example, asked respondents whether: "With the threat of terrorism both in the Middle East and worldwide with al-Qaeda, and nations like North Korea possessing nuclear weapons and threatening to use them against the U.S. or sell them to others, we need to do everything we can to protect our lives, our homes and our communities."

Other missile-defense surveys in recent years by national polling firms tell a different story, though few have been done since Sept. 11, 2001. A February 2003 Gallup Poll found 46 percent thought the United States should spend money to develop missile defenses, 22 percent opposed it and 33 percent were unsure.

Polls taken before 9-11 show a nearly even split. A Bloomberg News survey taken as the Bush administration entered office in January 2001 showed 47 percent of respondents favored missile defense and 47 percent opposed it. A Newsweek poll taken four months later showed 48 percent of Americans thought we should build the system and 44 percent opposed it.

With billions of dollars at stake, the marketing of missile defense isn't likely to let up anytime soon. Supporters such as Ellison insist that raising public consciousness is vital to making America a safer place.

"The world has changed since 9-11," he said. "We cannot afford to have America unprotected against this threat, and we need the country 100 percent behind it."


Copyright 2004, Sentinel Communications Co.