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Matter of Life and Limb': The Congressman Who's Going to Battle With the Army Over a Software Program
The 82nd Airborne in Afghanistan in 2011. Photo provided by DVIDs.

Matter of Life and Limb': The Congressman Who's Going to Battle With the Army Over a Software Program

"It should be about the lives of our soldiers and what's best for them."

Two-time war veteran Rep. Duncan Hunter is preparing for another battle. This time, it's against the U.S. Army, and it'll be waged on Capitol Hill.

Hunter was in disbelief in February 2012 when he received word from soldiers in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division that the Army had denied them a life-saving software analysis tool called Palantir. The software, developed in California's Silicon Valley, could help predict the location of future bombs meant to kill troops by analyzing explosives found in the field. It was similar to numerous requests the 5th Stryker Brigade had submitted in 2009 to Army officials before deploying to Afghanistan, requests that were also denied.

Rep. Duncan Hunter in Iraq. Hunter, a former Marine who has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, is leading a fight against what he believe's is the  Army's failure to provide life-saving software technology to soldiers on the battlefield. Photo provided by Hunter's office. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is now leading a fight against the Army's failure to provide life-saving software technology to soldiers on the battlefield. (Photo courtesy of Hunter's office)

Dozens of young soldiers, officers and information technology specialists were complaining in calls and emails over failures with the Army's Distributed Common Grounds System-Army, known by the acronym DCSG-A. The soldiers wanted the alternative software, Palantir, which had proven successful during training and missions in other service branches.

The 82nd had already suffered a number of casualties and had continuously been denied access to Palantir. The Marines and Air Force were using it; the 82nd wanted the same.

By February, Hunter was drawn into the fight. He paced back and forth in his office on that cold day, a senior congressional aide recalled.

As the congressman took up the cause, six troops in the division's 1st Brigade Combat Team were killed in a two-week span by roadside bombs. In June 2012, Hunter wrote a letter urging the House Oversight Committee to investigate.

The 82nd warned that it "was a matter of life and limb," Hunter told TheBlaze.

The former Marine, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, picked up the phone and called the one man he thought would fix the problem: Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army's chief of staff.

The 82nd Airborne in Afghanistan in 2011. Photo provided by DVIDs. U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Erin Gibson, right, from Covington, Ohio, and Sgt. Kelton Glorfield, left, from Boise, Idaho, assigned to 3rd Platoon, the "All American" Dustoff, 82nd Airborne Combat Aviation Brigade, Fort Bragg, N.C., conduct preflight checks on a UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter at Forward Operating Base Shank in Logar province, Afghanistan, Dec. 19, 2011. (Photo courtesy of Defense Video and Imagery Defense System)

After Odierno received Hunter's call, he ordered an assessment “to compare, and appraise the capabilities of Palantir versus DCGS-A thru the lens of the deployed commander," according to an Army investigation from October 2012 that was obtained by TheBlaze.

[sharequote align="right"]"A matter of life and limb..."[/sharequote]

After Odierno spoke with Hunter, he approved the request to supply the 82nd with Palantir.

But the situation quickly changed.

Rescind and Destroy

The assessment by the Army Test and Evaluation Command concluded in April 2012 that DCGS-A was “overcomplicated, requires lengthy classroom instruction,” and uses an “easily perishable skill set if not used constantly.”

By contrast, the report stated, "ninety-six of the 100 personnel surveyed agreed that Palantir was effective in supporting their mission. The overall feedback from the operators and immediate supervisors was that Palantir is a user-friendly and reliable program." The report was signed by Brig. Gen. Laura J. Richardson, commander of the U.S. Army Operational Test Command.

Shortly after the unflattering report was completed, Army officials who had reviewed it ordered it to be rescinded and destroyed, according to a June 2012 internal memo.

Mary A. Legere is a Lieutenant General and the current Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence (G-2) of the United States Army. Photo curtsy of Army website. Lt. Gen. Mary A. Legere is the current deputy chief of staff for intelligence of the United States Army. (Image source: U.S. Army)

Lt. Gen. Mary Legere is the Army’s deputy chief of staff for intelligence and a strong proponent of the Army's DCGS-A system. A 30-year veteran of the military, Legere was in charge of the program when the Army Test and Evaluation Command report was ordered changed. The evaluation command resisted changing the report for one month.

In a sworn statement, Col. Mark Valeri, commander with the Forward Operational Assessment Team XVIII who was in Afghanistan at the time, said that he felt pressure to change the original April report, according to the internal Army investigation.

"We as our team did not want to change the report," Valeri said. "However, we had no understanding of what was going on in the States and assumed something large was driving this decision." 

Legere made a personal call to have the report destroyed, according to the internal Army investigation.

The Army ordered the favorable Palantir report “immediately pulled off our ATEC site” due to “political sensitivities in D.C. that no one in theater was tracking,” according to an email exchange from Army officials included in the internal Army investigation report. Legere's office declined numerous requests for an interview with TheBlaze.

[sharequote align="center"]"Please ensure that all copies ... are destroyed and not distributed." [/sharequote]

The ATEC report "for the Palantir system dated 25 April 2012 is rescinded and replaced by the [Forward Operational Assessment Report] dated 25 May 2012," an Army memo stated. "Please ensure that all copies of the 25 April report are destroyed and not distributed."

The revised ATEC report, which was not signed by Richardson but by a subordinate in her stead, removed the unflattering comments on DCGS-A as well as the recommendations to add more Palantir servers in Afghanistan, among other changes.

Once Hunter discovered that the ATEC report had been purposefully altered, he attempted to contact Odierno again.

He made two calls and sent one letter asking the top Army general to meet, a senior congressional staffer said. Hunter was denied.

Army officials informed the congressman that they were investigating the changes made in the report and therefore were prohibited from discussing the issue any further. That investigation concluded that changes had taken place, but did not hold anyone accountable for those changes, according to the internal Army report.

Legere, however, defended the Army's software program in a rare interview with the New Republic last year. She described DCGS-A to the publication as "the thing that underpins all our decisions and informs our weapons platforms … . We’re now confident in the data and its richness."

Army spokesman Matthew Bourke told TheBlaze the internal investigation revealed that the “rescind and destroy” memo was issued in order to ensure that the April 25, 2012 forward operational assessment review “properly reflected the strengths and weaknesses of Palantir and that the recommendations in the report were in line with the report's purpose.”

He said the investigating officer did not find that the order to rescind the report was the result of “anyone attempting to improperly advance the Army’s DCGS-A program of record.”

The next time Hunter would speak with Odierno would be at a House Armed Services Committee hearing months later. The two would come to verbal blows.

'Doesn't Work. It Doesn't Work at All'

Hunter engaged in showdown after showdown with the Army about the Palantir software.

When he finally got his chance to speak to Odierno during a congressional hearing last year, the general, who always seemed to have a normal, straightforward disposition, became angry with Hunter. It turned into a verbal fight. Hunter stated that brigades were still requesting better software, and told Odierno that he didn't understand the Defense Department's motivation in "trying to create systems that already exist."

Hunter, frustrated by the Army's failure to respond to his requests prior to the hearing, then got up to leave at the end of his questioning. He said he was frustrated that after more than two years, Army officials have not given him straight forward answers.

Odierno was angry that the lawmaker was about to walk out.

Odierno shot back, "I'm tired of somebody telling me I don't care about our soldiers, that we don't respond. ... We've been going back and forth on this for months. And I'm tired of the anecdotal evidence."

But the evidence is not anecdotal, according to the multitude of complaints and failures being reported by soldiers in the field and the Army's own chief tester that found DCGS-A to be "not effective, not suitable and not survivable" in a 2012 testing.

When Hunter began to investigate the Army's program, it became apparent the situation was much worse than it had first appeared.

"My office had gotten emails from all types of guys on the ground, Special Forces, regular infantry units saying, 'DCGS doesn’t work. It doesn’t work at all. We don’t use it. We use PowerPoint and Google Maps. The Army’s making us use DCGS. We want to use Palantir, we want to buy Palantir because it’s saving lives,'” Hunter told TheBlaze. "The Army is trying to reinvent the wheel … and they didn't do a good job of it."

Hunter said the Army programs were driven by Washington bureaucracy, not "by what the guys need on the ground at that time, and that’s where the Army failed here."

"They failed to provide the men and women on the ground with the best software out there because they were in love back here in Washington, D.C., with their jobs and with some software that did not work," he added. "It should be about the lives of our soldiers and what's best for them."

Troops who had the opportunity to use Palantir were having better success in tracking bomb-makers and finding improvised explosive devices and "that's a big deal because IEDs are the number one killer and wounding mechanism of the bad guys in Afghanistan," Hunter added.

"So you would think that the Army would jump on this concept of a relatively extremely cheap system that’s already been developed in Silicon Valley," Hunter added. "But they didn't and they haven't."

Follow Sara A. Carter (@SaraCarterDC) on Twitter

Programming note: For more on this story, watch TheBlaze TV’s all-new For the Record episode, “Armed and Unaccountable,” Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET.

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