An Army explosive ordnance disposal unit from 25th Infantry Division, 4th Brigade Combat Team, renders safe an improvised explosive device in Khost, Afghanistan, on March 24. (Spc. Eric James Estrada / Army)
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The Army is investigating how the 3rd Infantry Division obtained intelligence software on a cost-free basis from Palo Alto, Calif.-based Palantir prior to its year-long deployment to Afghanistan.
In response to the discovery that the unit had installed Palantir-provided servers at Fort Stewart, Ga., for training and to provide an analytical backbone during its 2012-13 deployment, the Army has ordered the servers shut down and has ordered them removed by the end of the month, according to a source familiar with the issue. While the domestic backbone was envisioned as a way for the unit to do further analysis of IED networks and provide a reach back capability for analysts down range, the unit is still using the Palantir software in Regional Command-South that it inherited from the outgoing 82nd Airborne Division.
The Palantir software is designed to coordinate vast amounts of information stored in various government databases to help deployed units track and pinpoint insurgent leaders, IED strikes, and IED-planting networks, and reports indicate that it has met with great success in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne and a Stryker brigade. The U.S. Special Forces Command, some Marine units, and several foreign militaries also use the software for data analysis in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
A packet of documents obtained by Army Times includes a May 23 memo from the 3rd ID to the Rapid Equipping Force requesting a year-long agreement for stateside access to a Palantir server for training and mission support. In the memo, a 3rd ID officer called Palantir "the primary analytical tool/server being utilized" in Regional Command South and Southwest. Other memos make clear that the 3rd ID didn't have the funding to purchase the software and was seeking a solution to the problem of getting its soldiers trained on the equipment before falling in on it in Afghanistan.
Neither the Rapid Equipping Force nor Palantir have responded to requests for comment.
The Army isn't having any of it, however. A Sept. 12 memo from Kim Denver, the Army's deputy assistant secretary for procurement to the service's Contracting Command, calls for a cease-and-desist order against Palantir banning it from "approaching units and providing goods and services for free." The company has been told that "future actions resulting in unauthorized commitment may result in Palantir forgoing payment for services provided prior to the contract."
A source close to the issue, however, said that every Army unit that had requested the Palantir software had contacted the company on its own initiative by finding emails and phone numbers on the firm's website.
While the Palantir issue didn't come up during Thursday an emotional hearing of the House Defense Appropriations Committee at which the Joint IED Defeat Organization's Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero gave testimony, the issue of intelligence — and the lack of it when it comes to unraveling IED smuggling networks in Afghanistan — cast a pall over the normally strictly bureaucratic proceedings.
The story of Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Sitton and 1st Sgt. Russell Bell of the 4th BCT, 82nd Airborne Division, became a central focus of much of the hearing after Rep. Bill Young of Florida had a letter from Sitton read aloud.
In a letter to the congressman written earlier this year from Afghanistan, Sitton said his chain of command was "making us walk through, for lack of a better term, basically a mine field on a daily basis." He continued to say that as a brigade, "we are averaging at a minimum an amputee a day from our soldiers because we are walking around aimlessly through grape rows and compounds that are littered with explosives."
Sitton and Bell were killed Aug. 2 when an IED detonated while their platoon was on a dismounted patrol in Kandahar province, Afghanistan.
Barbero said that while the Army continues to focus on protecting both mounted and dismounted patrols in Afghanistan, the vast majority of the 16,000 IED "events" in Afghanistan in 2011 came from virtually undetectable combinations of commercially available ammonium nitrate and wood. JIEDDO has been trying since 2006 — at a cost of almost $20 billion — to unravel the IED riddle, and despite some real and substantial successes, it has been unable to fully prevent the weapon from killing and maiming coalition troops and civilians.
Barbero said that although 2011 was a record year for IED strikes, 2012 "is on track to meet or exceed the historic number of IED events we saw last year." The 3rd ID's attempts to work outside the system to map insurgent networks may have drawn the ire of Army contracting professionals, but the fight on the ground in Afghanistan continues, extra servers or not.