Loren Thompson makes a lot of money being mean
Making fun of journalists in exchange for millions of dollars for your Washington, D.C.-area “think tanks.” It’s not bad work if you can get it.
Loren Thompson is the Chief Operating Officer and front man for the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Arlington, Virginia that lists just eight staff and reportedly rakes in more than $2 million a year. He also heads Source Associates, a for-profit consultancy.
Thompson is really quite mean. It’s basically his job to denounce, discredit and denigrate reporters covering the U.S. defense industry—and especially anyone writing about Lockheed Martin, the jet fighter-maker with headquarters in Maryland.
Lockheed, America’s biggest weapons producer, is also one of Thompson’s best clients. The company’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter—the most expensive arms development in history at more than $400 billion—is late, over-budget and riddled with design problems.
But don’t take our word for it. In late January the Pentagon’s own testing agency released a 20-page report detailing serious flaws in the F-35’s software, sensors, weapons and radar-absorbing coating. The agency warned that the stealth jet might not be ready for combat as planned starting in 2015.
“Even if the JSF manages to meet its 2015 deployment deadline, it could fly into combat unreliable, confused, defenseless, toothless and vulnerable,” is how we summed up the report’s findings.
Thompson quickly responded in a column in Forbes, insisting the F-35’s negative test report “doesn’t matter.” The 60-something former Georgetown professor referred to our “unreliable, confused” line, commenting that our claim “reveals such abysmal ignorance about the status of the program that it discredits anything else the author[s] might choose to say on the subject.”
Apparently unaware of the irony, he added a disclaimer. “Many of the companies working on the F-35 program including prime contractor Lockheed Martin contribute to my think tank.”
It’s worth noting that Thompson also defended the F-35 against critics in 2009 following some equally scathing testing reviews. He called for “confidence” in the pricey jet. “The F-35 program isn’t really all that troubled,” he wrote.
Thompson accused critics of the $400-billion program of being lazy and ignorant. “If you don’t follow the defense business closely, then you can be excused for believing that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is in trouble,” he practically chuckled.
But Thompson’s timing could not have been more hilarious. Shortly after he published his column, the JSF program nearly collapsed. “Within weeks, the [F-35] program manager had been fired,” Aviation Week reporter Bill Sweetman recalled. “Within months, outside review teams found enough nasties in the woodshed to delay the program by multiple years, and tens of billions [of dollars].”
And we’re the ones being discredited?
The Beltway mercenary
Thompson has a long history of badmouthing reporters in the service of his donors. In 2009, he launched the Lexington Institute’s blog by slamming independent writers. Most military-industry blogs, Thompson contended, are “tendentious nonsense.”
“For every interesting, competent effort like DoD Buzz, there are dozens of ill-mannered rants masquerading as insight,” he wrote. “To say that blogs have lowered the standards of public discourse on policy matters is an under-statement — there are no standards. Anybody can say anything.”
It was no wonder Thompson would highlight DoD Buzz. That blog had recently praised Thompson as “uber-connected.”
Long-time defense writers were unimpressed by Thompson’s bluster. “Let the marketplace of ideas speak for itself,” the naval commentator “CDR Salamander” pointed out, “but if [Thompson] thinks his blog is covering anything new, then he isn’t reading blogs.”
“Besides, in the blogosphere your argument, not your resume, is most important,” Salamander added.
As for Thompson, his arguments are always “pro-industry,” government watchdog Nick Schwellenbach, then with the Project on Government Oversight, told the Mobile Press-Register newspaper. “I don’t think you’ll ever see him calling for less spending or cutting programs.”
Thompson has admitted as much, in his commentary about political appointees. “It is very hard to be objective when you come out of the defense industry,” he told The New York Times. “You are constantly aware that anything you do might be interpreted by outsiders, so either way you are motivated by external factors rather than the merits of the issue.”
Case in point: in 2009, Thompson wrote a paper calling for the Air Force to buy more C-17 cargo planes from Boeing at a price of around $200 million apiece. “The military needs many more C-17 airlifters,” Thompson insisted.
Boeing also funds Thompson’s think tanks, but the Chicago plane-maker’s checks apparently couldn’t match Lockheed’s, because just a year later in 2010, Thompson did a 180-degree turn on the C-17 issue. “The simple truth is that it looks like the Air Force will soon have all the long-range airlift it needs,” he wrote.
As Flight reporter Stephen Trimble pointed out, Thompson began advocating for the C-17’s main rival, a rebuilt version of Lockheed’s 1980s-vintage C-5.
In 2009, Thompson had criticized the elderly C-5’s notoriously poor reliability. But in 2010, he was calling the Lockheed plane “greatly enhanced” and claiming it cost a “fraction” of a factory-fresh C-17’s $200-million price tag. In fact, a rebuilt C-5 set the taxpayer back around $150 million—hardly a “fraction” of $200 million.
“Which Loren Thompson is correct? Thompson09? Or Thompson10?” Trimble asked.
We’re not privy to the balance sheets of the Lexington Institute or Thompson’s for-profit consultancy, but we’re willing to bet that a shift in corporate funding explains the switch in positions. “I’m not going to work on a project unless somebody, somewhere, is willing to pay,” Thompson told Harper’s. “This is a business.”
So when some unwitting reporter quotes Thompson as an “expert” or he pens a screed of his own, remember that it seems that money, and money alone, motivates Thompson’s arguments.
When he calls a reporter “ill-mannered” or accuses them of “abysmal ignorance,” he’s just doing his job—being mean on behalf of the arms industry.