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Security Wars: Inside the Military’s Big, Messy Fight With Palantir, the Company They Pay to Spy on You Online

(Image: Digital eye via Shutterstock)

In a House Armed Services Committee hearing at the end of April, California Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter, a former Marine, leveled serious charges against high-level Army officers. He accused them of blocking the use of Palantir technology, the company the military has hired to watch the US public’s every online move for signs of potential terrorist activity.

But the House had concerns of its own: In a letter dated August 1, 2012, the House Committee asked why the $2.3 billion had been spent on research and development of the DCGS-A, a global surveillance and intelligence super platform, that despite the mind-boggling sum, failed to work as planned. Reports submitted to House Armed Services Committee outlining serious issues with the global surveillance and intelligence super platform indicated that DCGS-A is “unable to perform simple analytical tasks.” More specifically, military intelligence analysts from the Army and Air Force have both expressed that DCGS-A does not “provide intuitive capabilities to see the relationships between a wide variety of disparate data sets of information.”

Also See: Outsourced Intelligence: How the FBI and CIA Use Private Contractors to Monitor Social Media

The ongoing fight over the use of Palantir software bubbled over into Congress when the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform sent a letter to then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta requesting documentation of the forward operations assessment for the Palantir system. Before any technology is deployed by the military, that technology must be vetted in the form of an assessment based on a trial resembling real world situations. Instead of receiving the powerful software system with open arms, Army brass refused to fully implement technology that the FBI and CIA already use to monitor digital communications of US citizens, including surveillance of social media platforms as Facebook and Twitter. Given that the CIA provided the start-up to get Palantir going, there is an interest in having all branches of government implement the same, or similar technology. In the age where terrorists lurk around every corner, and international occupations churn out generation after generation of anti-imperialist youth, consolidating the surveillance and intelligence systems employed would seem to make sense. Now that this private company, Palantir, has become a very successful money-making venture, there appears to be an internal security war going on inside the US government over what system to deploy in international theaters. This is not in the name of the public good, but rather an effort by the US Army to hold its own as other federal agencies like the CIA, FBI, NSA, and DIA increase in power and influence post 9-11.


Palantir Technologies Inc. was a CIA start-up aimed at streamlining the gathering and analysis of massive amounts of data generated from both offline and online human interaction.

Before the FBI and CIA effectively handed over the bulk of their online intelligence gathering and surveillance to software developed by Palantir, there was a focused effort to do something similar in-house nearly 20 years prior. After combat operations ended in Iraq and Kuwait in 1991, the Department of Defense determined that dominance of information technology and intelligence operations would give the US a powerful and strategic advantage over its enemies.

In order to do that, the DoD would have to integrate the nation’s Signal Intelligence (SIGINT), Common Imagery (CIGSS), and Imagery Intelligence (IMINT) ground and surface systems into one super system, otherwise known as the Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS AN/GSQ-272). Specifically, DCGS was tasked with the surveillance and reconnaissance of targeted individuals or organizations, as well as the gathering and processing of data, and dissemination of information in an effort to “facilitate Seeing and Knowing on the battlefield.”

Since the Internet had yet to be born, intelligence was gathered and disseminated by the predecessors of the U-2 Dragonlady, RQ-4 Global Hawk, MQ-9 Reaper, MQ-1 Predator, and MC-12 Liberty, all different types of manned aircraft “weapons systems,” not to mention human intelligence gathered clandestinely in the field. Over the years, DCGS has been deployed in every major foreign conflict, occupation, or intelligence-gathering mission in which the military has been involved.

All of this changed drastically following the attacks on September 11, 2001. Huge amounts of funding poured into creating a slew of new federal agencies. According to a two-year-long investigative piece titled “Top Secret America” completed by the Washington Post, “some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.”

In a July 2010 memo, Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence Michael Flynn requested advanced analytical capabilities for US forces stationed in Afghanistan. Flynn stated that “intelligence analysts in theater do not have the tools required to fully analyze the tremendous amounts of information currently available in theater.” He went on to say that this intelligence shortfall prohibited commanders from having a full understanding of the operational environment, and that without advanced capabilities, operations would not be as successful as they could be – translating into higher loss of life during combat. In the memo, he goes into specific detail on the type of system needed, and how current tools do not provide “intuitive capabilities to see the relationships between wide varieties of disparate sets of information.” This echoes Palantir Technologies’ demonstration given to potential clients regarding a fictional terrorist by the name of Mike Fikiri, nearly word for word.

Between July 2010 and September 2012, the 3rd Infantry Division stationed in Afghanistan began fusing its current intelligence system with those provided by none other than Palantir Technologies. Some of those new capabilities include using mobile apps and other handheld devices to support combat personnel and commanders in the field by integrating with the Blue Force Tracking (BFT). That’s a GPS-enabled system allowing military commanders to know where both friendly and hostile forces are located. More importantly, the software was implemented to locate and destroy roadside bombs and IEDs.

In order to pull this off, servers were provided and installed at no cost by Palantir at Fort Stewart, Georgia, offices, where the 3rd Infantry Division is based. The problem with all of this is that it violated CFR 48 – Federal Acquisitions Regulations, and US Army HQ as a whole was totally unaware and had not signed off on any of it. Because it had been installed under the radar, Army headquarters promptly ordered all of the servers to be shut down and had them removed by the end of September 2012. Army brass even went so far as to have Kim Denver, Army deputy assistant secretary for procurement, issue a cease-and-desist order against Palantir disallowing it from “approaching units and providing goods and services for free.”

The memo goes on to describe numerous requests from commanders in Afghanistan for a more robust system, and states that there may have been a possible manipulation of Army Test and Evaluation Command (ATEC) assessment reports on the Palantir system. According to the Army’s website, ATEC is “the premier test and evaluation organization within DoD and the Army’s trusted agent for ensuring that our Warfighters have the right capabilities for success across the entire spectrum of operations.” Source documents provided to the House Committee on April 25, 2012, did not match a second version of the report that was created, due to the fact that several survey responses were withheld by Colonel Joseph Martin, commanding officer of the Army Operational Test Command. Colonel Martin apparently gave orders to replace the April 25, 2012, report with the May 25, 2012, version in an obvious attempt to stop the burgeoning tech giant. The memo to Defense Secretary Panetta, issued by the Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman, Republican Darrell E. Issa, states “these actions could be construed as limiting positive feedback on use of a more expensive and less effective program.

In August 2011, a military exercise simulating what would happen if North Korea attacked the US resulted in a catastrophic failure of the $2.3 billion DCGS system software, which was developed by Northrop Grumman. During that exercise, the volume of information the system was designed to analyze instead resulted in ten of the 96 hours allotted to the exercise being spent rebooting or outright locked up. If being unable to complete basic functions wasn’t enough to infuriate top ranking military officials, a 2.5-minute nomination time frame for bombing targets, expected to take mere seconds, set the stage for private contractors to get a piece of the action.

Palantir seems to be winning the years-long war of attrition, and has secured a cooperative research agreement with the Army, signed in May 2012, as well as having its software purchased for use in Afghanistan shortly thereafter(even after it was at first given away for free, illegally). Taking into account that this little-known tech start-up had an estimated worth of $3 billion as of 2011, not even 6 years after being founded by the CIA, and that it has the influence and know-how to get the majority of the American intelligence community signed on as clients, you have to ask yourself where this is all heading. Having a single private corporation with access to top secret classified information on everything from military troop movements, terrorist watch lists, to everyday movements and communications of common individuals, at what point does it stop? Or is this just the beginning?

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