While preparing for a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan, the leader of a Joint Base Lewis-McChord Stryker brigade called his 4,000 soldiers the most technologically advanced unit in the Army.
But when it left the states in July 2009, Col. Harry Tunnell’s 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division lacked the fully operable intelligence gathering system he’d requested to help sort through streams of information and find the enemy’s lethal bombs.
Tunnell and his intelligence officers wanted an off-the-shelf program called Palantir. They found it easy to use in breaking down relationships between the insurgent bomb-making networks they would face in combat.
They knew the program well. They practiced with it at their final month-long training exercise before they deployed.
Tunnell and his supporters, however, recently told congressional lawmakers the Defense Department did not provide them a fully equipped Palantir system until February 2010. By then, the brigade was more than halfway through a tour of duty in hostile territory – a part of southern Afghanistan that NATO forces had largely ignored for nine years.
And by then, the most dangerous part of the brigade’s deployment was over.
Tunnell’s brigade lost 37 soldiers during the course of the year, with 32 of the deaths falling before the arrival of the Palantir system.
“The only complaint I have is that we were not able to deploy initially with Palantir,” an intelligence officer from the brigade wrote in an Army survey near the end of the deployment. “Had Palantir been available initially, we could have made connections and links with more efficiency and had a better understanding of operations and intelligence in our district in short order.”
The Lewis-McChord brigade’s early advocacy for Palantir emerged this summer during a House investigation into what lawmakers perceive as the Army’s reluctance to use the program.
The Washington Times first reported on it, and The News Tribune later obtained the documents.
In April, the Army Test and Evaluation Command issued a report that favored Palantir over its competitor, the Distributed Common Ground System. The report noted shortcomings in both programs, but gave the advantage to Palantir because it was considered intuitive software and easy to teach by most of the surveyed intelligence soldiers.
The next month, the Army issued a “rescind and replace” memo striking the report. It revised the study in May, deleting the recommendation to adopt Palantir over its rival.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno is investigating what happened with that report. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is carrying out a parallel investigation.
Last week, California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter, a former Marine officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote a letter to Secretary of the Army John McHugh encouraging him to launch a third inquiry. Hunter noted that Special Forces and Marines widely use Palantir, while the Army favors the Distributed Common Ground System.
“What is so frustrating is that with lives at stake, and roadside bombs the number one source of U.S. casualties in Afghanistan, commanders are being denied technology that is effectively utilized by other service branches and commands,” Hunter wrote to McHugh.
Enemy bombs have continued to take a toll on Lewis-McChord troops, two years after Tunnell’s brigade came home. This year in Afghanistan, Lewis-McChord has lost 24 soldiers, at least 15 of whom were killed by bombs.
Tunnell wrote training memos in 2008 and 2009 that advocated for Palantir because he said the program filled an intelligence gap in the brigade’s chain of command, empowering company commanders to make better use of the information they gathered.
(A company typically has about 160 soldiers. Company commanders constantly have to make life-or-death decisions on the battlefield while carrying out orders from leaders at higher levels.)
The Army disputed Tunnell’s memos, telling The Washington Times that the 5th Brigade deployed with “the Army’s most advanced Network-Centric capabilities at that time, and Palantir.”
Tunnell and other officers recently spoke with Hunter’s communications director, Joe Kasper. They told him the 5th Brigade had Palantir available to it, but the program was not loaded with vital information about Afghanistan until early 2010.
Tunnell’s intelligence officers and company commanders noted the difference in the surveys they provided to the Army in the spring of 2010.
“It is a shame that the Army had not allowed us to use Palantir from the beginning. I think we would have had a more successful deployment,” said one infantry captain.
The captain said his intelligence team had to “build everything from scratch” when it hit the ground in Afghanistan, taking days to analyze information that Palantir could have accelerated.
Palantir Technologies is a Silicon Valley-based company that helps a variety of federal agencies develop law enforcement intelligence.
Last year, it was embarrassed by a hacker group that obtained emails suggesting Palantir wanted to work for Bank of America in a proposal to go on the offensive against WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy group that has published classified corporate and government memos.
Palantir President Alex Karp later apologized for his company’s part in the proposal. He cut ties with a security firm that participated in the pitch.
Rep. Adam Smith, D- Tacoma, is following the Army investigations as ranking minority member on the House Armed Services Committee.
In May of last year, he wrote a letter to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff urging the military to adopt “off the shelf” software to help service members act on better intelligence.
Smith noted projected delays in the adoption of Palantir’s rival, and drew attention to tens of millions of dollars the Army was requesting for that program. He nudged the Joint Chiefs chairman to use off-the-shelf systems when Army programs weren’t available.
“We still have an enemy that is capable of plotting against our homeland and we have men and women in combat who need the best analytic technology to help them succeed,” Smith wrote in his letter to Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Smith cited a July 2010 memo from Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, then the senior intelligence adviser to Afghanistan war commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal. In the memo, Flynn urged the military to provide better intelligence tools to link different databases and bolster soldiers’ abilities to analyze information on the battlefield.
As it was, Flynn wrote “The enemy is able to take advantage of his ability to hide in plain sight in the population because we have been unable to exploit the information/intelligence we already have.”
Tunnell’s tenure is among the most scrutinized of any brigade leader at Lewis-McChord in the past decade at war. Five of his 5th Brigade soldiers were accused of murdering three Afghan civilians in 2010; four of them were convicted at courts-martial last year.
A one-star general in March 2011 issued a 532-page command report after an investigation found that Tunnell was out of step with his NATO leaders. Brig. Gen. Stephen Twitty found that Tunnell insisted on pursuing an aggressive strategy focused on killing insurgents when his commanders wanted him to prioritize protecting civilians.
Twitty wrote that there was no link between Tunnell and the “kill team” murders. Just the same, he wrote that he would have recommended Tunnell be removed from command if Tunnell had not already been reassigned to Fort Knox, Ken.
In Twitty’s report, Tunnell and his supporters complained that NATO was not providing them the intelligence they needed to target insurgents and protect themselves.
Closer to the grunts on the ground, lower-ranking officers said Palantir would have helped them make sense of the unknown Taliban territory around them. They also said they would have left better information for the soldiers who followed them.
“The companies are only now really learning the system and all the strengths it brings,” a 5th Brigade intelligence officer wrote in a May 2010 survey, two months before he returned to Lewis-McChord. “If they had been able to use it for one year, there is a true depth of knowledge they would have been able to hand over to the incoming unit.”