Sometime in the spring of 2012 Al Bunting received a message imploring him to publicly endorse America’s warplane of the future.
Bunting, a retired senior Air Force officer and administrator for the tiny New Jersey coastal town of Sea Girt, was not alone. Across the Garden State in 2011 and 2012, government officials, political organizers and even religious leaders received similar messages, all asking for the recipient to speak out on behalf of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, meant to replace thousands of existing U.S. warplanes at an immediate cost of more than $400 billion. The plane had run into serious technical problems that heaped cost and delays onto the program, and needed a public boost.
The messages were just one facet of a high-stakes public relations campaign, paid for by Lockheed Martin and overseen by an interlocking network of powerful PR firms. The paid, pro-F-35 advocacy also involved, to some extent, a mysterious blog with access to suspiciously high levels of F-35 testing data.