Congress forms inquiry over Army’s software picks
Congress is to investigate the Army after it panned requests for battlefield software said to greatly improve intelligence capabilities. But insiders disagree over whether the program works, or if its developer simply bought favor with officials.
Telling information about how the US military conceives of and implements such programs is sure to come out in the investigation. Right now, not much is known other than the program’s reported effectiveness – and that its Silicon Valley developer, which spent nearly a half million dollars last year on lobbying, seems to have fallen out of favor.
Some US units in Afghanistan already use the program, called the Palantir System, but multiple requests from others have been denied by top Army brass. In a May memo, the 1st Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division noted an “urgent need” for Palantir in the restive Ghazni province, where it’s based.
In a memo obtained by AP, the 82nd said that other units nearby use Palantir. But since the brigade lacks the same software, sharing data and intelligence is difficult. The brigade said Palantir would give it better analytical power.
But one member of the Army’s resource planning committee, writing under the condition of anonymity, told Wired magazine that only a “vocal minority” of units say they like Palantir. He added that “Palantir lobbyists” put pressure on Congressional representatives to pump money into the Pentagon’s budget – specifically so that the military can buy the firm’s product.
Palantir operates its own political action committee in order to hand out campaign donations. But the Silicon Vally firm seems to have rubbed someone on the Hill the wrong way, and the Army is sticking to its old program.
That system, which was under development for nearly a decade, cost $2.3 billion to complete. The DCGS-A (Distributed Common Ground System – Army) was created by corporate contractors as a go-to for gathering intelligence – ranging from satellite images to enemy combatants’ fingerprints – on the ground.
DCGS-A is supposed to help intelligence analysts put together files on high-value targets, find connections between events, and deduce the enemy’s next move.
But many troops – including Mike Flynn, formerly the top US intelligence officer in Afghanistan – say DCGS-A is too slow and complicated to effectively get the job done. Flynn told other generals in a Joint Urgent Operations Needs Statement (JUONS) that the enemy could “hide in plain sight” because the Army’s intelligence officers lack “the tools required to fully analyze the tremendous amounts of information currently available.”
The JUONS went to the Pentagon’s Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office, which determined that Palantir’s data mining, information visualization, and link analysis program was the answer.
“Palantir reduced the time required for countless analytical functions and streamlined other, once cumbersome, processes,” Maj. Gen John Toolan, commander of the Marine Expeditionary Force in Afghanistan, wrote in February of this year. “The innovative and collaborative capabilities of Palantir have proven their mettle and effectiveness for conventional and special operations forces in combat.”
Now, Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA), himself a Marine who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, wants to know why the Army rescinded an April report recommending Palantir, replacing it a month later with a new version that made no mention of the recommendations and removed some positive references to the software.
“The idea that ground combat units in Afghanistan are being denied intelligence tools that are requested and readily available is unsettling and underscores a major failure in a process that is intended to deliver resources to the warfighter as quickly as possible,” wrote Hunter, who served one tour in Afghanistan and two in Iraq.
The replacement report raised eyebrows in Washington in late July when it was first reported by local paper the Washington Times.
Thursday, Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), who chairs the House Oversight Committee, told Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that “all documents and communications referring to or relating to requests for the Palantir system” must be delivered to him “no later than 5:00 pm on August 15, 2012.”
Those documents will be the basis of a congressional inquiry into the matter, which is to begin with Issa and the House Oversight Committee.
Meanwhile, the Army says it has started its own investigation.