“Optics!” hissed the NATO summit staffer. “Jesus Christ, optics!”
He was right to panic. It was Sunday evening, 6 sharp, the end of the first day of the NATO summit in Chicago. A swarm of global press was gathered around the convention hall’s lone display, a slick industry-sponsored video exhibit of NATO’s ballistic missile defense system. Any minute, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and his entourage would come sweeping out of a nearby tunnel for a tour the installation. It was the last photo op of the day.
There was just one problem. The televisions lining Rasmussen’s entrance path were turned to CNN and looping fresh footage of Chicago police raining nightsticks down on the skulls of protesters. The waiting press was glued to the screens, pointing and murmuring about the violence in a dozen languages. Also drawing attention was a very public huddle by NATO staff. “Shut off the damn TVs!” one of them said. “The optics might be worse if we shut them off now,” said another. But it was too late. Before a decision on the TVs could be reached, Rassmussen entered the hall trailed by a gaggle of attaches and military men. The world’s cameras snapped away.
It reveals much about NATO and the media coverage of the Chicago summit that images of protest are “bad optics,” but not what came next. What came next was this: Rasmussen received a guided tour of the missile defense exhibit not by senior NATO military officials, nor by the scientists developing the technology, but by senior executives from Raytheon and Thales, two of the program’s leading private contractors. Under the gaze of the world’s media, the three men strolled through the bright illuminated walls surrounding a life-size interceptor missile. Each was titled for aspects of the system — “Potential Future Capabilities,” “Interceptor Systems,” “Land and Sea-based Sensors” — and contained photos of the technologies in action. Below each photo was the logo of the company holding the contract. Raytheon and Lockheed were most common, followed by Boeing and the French firms MBDA, Thales and Astrium.
“If you are looking for a case study on defense industrial interests shaping NATO policy, missile defense is a good place to start,” says Ian Davis, the London-based director of NATO Watch and the organizer of a recent NATO shadow summit in Washington, D.C.
Standing not far from me and watching with pride was Linda Stanfel of Sterling Strategies, a boutique public relations agency contracted by the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency to promote missile defense. Stanfel was very proud of the installation, which she had put together with contributions from the system’s contractors. While waiting for Rasmussen’s arrival, I overheard her chatting with Raytheon vice president for business development Thomas Vecchiolla. “Back in the 1980s [the Pentagon] used to spend all this money on disaster management, correcting everything the press got wrong about missile defense,” she said. “This is the kind of thing we need to be doing more of.” She was upset that Northrop Grumman had declined to contribute to the installation. “They’re the only ones who don’t seem to get it,” she said with a frown. But the joke was on anyone but Northrop Grumman, who left Chicago with a $1.7 billion deal to lead the 13-nation team producing a new Alliance Ground Surveillance System.