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In anti-IED software case, Army’s buying rules trump troops’ safety
Question of the Day
As the Army's 3rd Infantry Division wages war in southern Afghanistan, some of its soldiers back home at Fort Stewart, Ga., have found themselves in the middle of a different kind of battle.
Before deploying in August, the division trained with a sophisticated data-processing software known as Palantir, which troops have praised as a great way to find roadside bombs, or improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Palantir's computer servers at Fort Stewart helped process battlefield data, such as enemy names and places, that the division provides from Afghanistan's Regional Command-South.
Last month, the Army ordered the servers to be shut down and returned to the provider, Palantir Technologies of Palo Alto, Calif. The Army contends that the division skirted regulations by accepting the servers free of charge.
But a House staffer who investigated the matter told The Washington Times that the 3rd Infantry and Palantir Technologies followed the law, and said there was no need to shut down the servers.
The Times has reported about other units that have met resistance from Army headquarters in requesting and deploying with the Palantir system, which uses link analysis to help predict where enemy combatants have placed roadside bombs — the No. 1 killer of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
'Fight the fight'
Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and a former Marine Corps officer who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, said flatly that Army officials are trying to protect funding for the Army's sponsored computer processor, the Distributed Common Ground System.
Mr. Hunter said he is astounded that the Army would go so far as to order the shutoff of Palantir servers used in the war effort.
"The Army's got their priorities wrong," he said. "The bureaucracy is caught in a web of their own making, and in the end the war fighter is not getting what they need. The fact that they're going to literally stop the Palantir servers means the Army is literally degrading the war fighter's ability to fight the fight."
He said Marine Corps units have used Palantir simultaneously at their home bases and on deployment abroad. "They had the guys in the rear doing it [in] real time," he said.
Army spokesman Matthew Bourke said the service is simply following regulations.
"Upon discovery that a unit had received equipment and training services from Palantir Technologies on a cost-free basis, which was in violation of federal acquisition regulations and the law, the Army immediately undertook specific corrective measures," Mr. Bourke said.
"The unit in question is working to execute proper contracts for these goods and services as required by law," he said. "Army commands have been advised of the need to reinforce training of personnel regarding the acceptance of goods and services without a contract.
"And greater acquisition oversight has been implemented to ensure that requests for similar capabilities follow required procedures."
The Army notes that the division is using Palantir in Afghanistan. It also says its testing command is evaluating whether Palantir's link-analysis software can be integrated into the Common Ground system, on which it has spent more than $2 billion in partnership with private industry.
The Times has reported on a confidential Army assessment in May that said the Common Ground system had "significant limitations" and was not reliable. Soldiers have complained that it is too slow and have said that Palantir can perform link analysis much faster.
The 3rd Infantry Division's embrace of Palantir began in December. Members traveled to southern Afghanistan to be briefed by the 82nd Airborne Division on what to expect, and learned of Palantir's reputation for effectiveness.
In January, the 82nd's commanding officer reported that his soldiers had increased the find-and-clear rate for roadside bombs by 12 percent. Internal 82nd Airborne Division documents show that soldiers complained about the Common Ground system.
In the spring at Fort Stewart, the 3rd Infantry began a campaign to acquire Palantir through either the Army's Rapid Equipping Force or the Pentagon's Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office. It also contacted Palantir.
The infantry division wanted company training to prepare for inheriting the Palantir servers used by the 82nd in Afghanistan. It also wanted "reach back" capability so that servers at Fort Stewart and in Afghanistan could process data.
In a May 2 memo to the Pentagon's Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office, Col. Leopoldo Quintas, the 3rd Infantry Division's chief of staff, heaped praise on Palantir.
The division's detailed request said: "Outside of Palantir, the analytical tools available to intelligence professionals did not allow for timely fusion and analysis."
Division documents assessing the Army's Common Ground system said: "Solving very hard analytical problems took several days when using existing tools against these data sources. In our experience in using Palantir platform against the same problems, we are able to reduce this time to a few hours. The Palantir platform provides one interface that easily ingests all the disparate data sources needed and allows our analysts to collaborate on finished intelligence."
In June, Palantir Technologies provided the servers and the training, a move that eventually got the division into hot water with the Army bureaucracy.
As the Army reviewed documents in August to meet a request from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, it discovered the Palantir transfer.
Heidi Shyu, the Army's top acquisition official, sent a memo to the service's most senior leadership — Army Secretary John McHugh and Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the chief of staff.
"If accurate, these circumstances warrant immediate corrective action by the Army to ensure that we comply with fundamental rules relating to how the government obtains goods and services from industry," Ms. Shyu wrote in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Times. She said she had asked a three-star general to investigate.
A month later, the Army played hardball with Palantir Technologies. A senior official sent a memo to the Army's contracting command telling it to ban Palantir representatives from approaching deploying units and "providing goods and services for free."
Joe Kasper, deputy chief of staff for Mr. Hunter, made inquiries and determined that neither Palantir nor the 3rd Infantry Division violated regulations.
Mr. Kasper said the training Palantir provided at Fort Stewart was not free and was conducted under a contract to train personnel involved in Afghanistan. "Palantir is not working for free," he said.
He said Palantir is working under a procedure called "at risk," which is allowed under federal law until the Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office finalizes the approved contract.
He said the at-risk procedure was a way to prepare soldiers in June and July to use the Palantir servers left by the 82nd Airborne.
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
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