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Congressman: Guard civilian broke lobbying rules with email request to soldiers

A congressman is seeking a Defense Department Inspector General investigation of a civilian employee with the National Guard who allegedly sent an email to troops asking them to lobby for an Army program.

The email, provided to Army Times, specifically aimed to derail Rep. Duncan Hunter's legislative effort to scrap a maligned intelligence network program, the Distributed Common Ground System-Army. The email addresses are redacted but Hunter's chief of staff Joe Kasper identified the sender as Micheal R. Hall, an intelligence specialist who works on plans and policy for the National Guard Bureau.

National Guard spokesman Maj. Earl Brown said that the Guard initiated its own investigation prior to receiving word of Hunter's call to the DoD IG. Brown declined further comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

DCGS is the Army's primary system for processing and disseminating intelligence. Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems integrates and designs the system while other defense giants Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Booz Allen Hamilton and General Dynamics among others also contribute elements. Initially conceived in the late 1990s, it incorporates data regarding weather, terrain, maps, enemy movements, human intelligence, aerial intelligence and other reconnaissance details.

Hunter, a Republican from California, has railed for years against the DCGS-A. Reports have called it unreliable and difficult to use. Hunter recently proposed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to halt development of aspects of the "system of systems" with an existing commercial off-the-shelf solution. But the Army has defended the system's continued development, touted recent improvements as well as the in-progress effort to develop DCGS-A Iteration 2, and dismissed calls to replace the program outright.

Photo Credit: Sgt. 1st Class Kristine Smedley Participants prepare the Tactical Ground System for the night portion of Enterprise Challenge 13, in which they demonstrated the ability to collect intelligence while on the move with the latest technology from industry, at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., July 24, 2013.
Photo Credit: Sgt. 1st Class Kristine Smedley Participants prepare the Tactical Ground System for the night portion of Enterprise Challenge 13, in which they demonstrated the ability to collect intelligence while on the move with the latest technology from industry, at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., July 24, 2013.

Soldiers prepare the Tactical Ground System, a part of the Distributed Common Ground System-Army.

Photo Credit: Sgt. 1st Class Kristine Smedley/Army

Hall's March 22 email appears to have gone to about 170 recipients, mostly Guard soldiers or employees. The message stated the Guard's intelligence wing opposes Hunter's proposal for an off-the-shelf alternative. The Guard employee said that implementing a new system with the same capability as the widely-fielded DCGS-A would create update and software compatibility issues.

"We are asking that you approach your Federal House of Representative and Senate leadership to provide them your input and advice as Military Intelligence Senior Leaders in the Army National Guard," said the email, which Hunter's office shared.

Hall did not immediately respond to Army Times calls and emails requesting comment. His LinkedIn page indicates he was in the National Guard from 2006 until 2015, has worked multiple jobs for the Army, and began working for the National Guard Bureau in his current role in 2014.

According to Hunter's April 5 letter to the IG, the email clearly constitutes lobbying, "despite strict prohibitions in federal law and Defense Department regulations."

The Anti-Lobbying Act of 1919 bans federally appropriated funds from being used in activity to influence Congress or a government official. The Department of Justice has clarified that it's interpretation would bar "substantial grass roots" lobbying campaigns by federal employees to influence legislation. No one has been prosecuted by the Justice Department under the law.

Defense Department regulations add layers of warnings. The Pentagon's Ethics Counselor's Deskbook from October said defense personnel "must avoid the appearance of grass roots lobbying efforts or any other attempt to encourage communication with Congress on pending legislation." Another Defense document says civilian employees are prohibited from "sending e-mails from government computers expressing political views, forwarding or posting newspaper articles or editorials about political candidates" or using government resources or time for even permitted political activity.

"The bigger question for us is who directed this guy to write the email? We find it hard to believe this was someone acting on their own initiative," said Kasper, who said the email was from a "senior civilian" Guard employee.

"There's been a broad effort in the Army to push back against anything that's anti-DCGS," Kasper said.

Army spokesman Lt. Col. Jesse Stalder deferred questions about the email to the National Guard, but defended the DCGS-A program, saying the latest update performed well in robust operational testing in December.

"Report results state that DCGS-A addressed a number of critical issues identified in previous testing, including increased intelligence clarity and improved system reliability and stability," Stalder told Army Times in an emailed statement. "Working in collaboration with major Army commands and units, DCGS-A Program Management Office is currently fielding the most user-friendly, effective, and interoperable version to date."

The statement also said the current version uses about 80 percent commercial software (an apparent rebuttal to COTS advocates like Hunter), and that the "Army looks forward to DCGS-A Increment 2 that maximizes competition among commercial vendors and harvests the best capabilities to support the timely, secure and effective exchange of intelligence information."

Hall's email similarly pushed back on concerns by touting improvements in DCGS-A Increment 1's update and the coming Increment 2. It includes a Washington Times article about Hunter's amendment which "continues a trend of pointedly negative remarks about the DCGS-A program."

A troubled system

The Army issued a formal request for proposals for DCGS-A Increment 2 in December after working with vendors for more than a year on market research. The submissions were due on Feb. 8. The Army hopes the effort, focused on data architecture and analytics, can produce a system that appeases critics.

Numerous internal reports have found flaws in the current DCGS-A, which took 5.5 years and over $150 million to even get off the ground, according to a Government Accountability Office report. According to a 2012 Army report on the program it struggled in the transition from lab to operational configuration and was not operationally effective. The next year's report recommended comparing it to commercial alternatives.

Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo, PEO IEWS The Army could realize significant cost savings in money, resources and satellite bandwidth by converging intelligence and C2 onto a common platform. It would also reduce the number of systems a Soldier has to operate in the field.
Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo, PEO IEWS The Army could realize significant cost savings in money, resources and satellite bandwidth by converging intelligence and C2 onto a common platform. It would also reduce the number of systems a Soldier has to operate in the field.

An email defending the Defense Common Ground System-Army, a maligned intelligence "system of systems" for gathering intelligence data, has been flagged by Rep. Duncan Hunter as a clear case of improper lobbying by a federal employee with the National Guard.

Photo Credit: U.S. Army

The Times article quotes former Defense Intelligence Agency head Ret. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who harshly criticized DCGS as unusable, saying he'd never seen the system "applied on the battlefield the way it was touted." He said the Army needed to "move to "DCGS 2.0 quickly" since technology has lapped the current version. Flynn left DIA in 2014.

A 2015 Army report out of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, said: "Unofficial comments by DCGS-A users claim the system is clunky and not easy to use. They prefer to use systems like Palantir that has a great (user interface) and is less complicated to use."

Palantir already filed a GAO protest of the DCGS-A Increment 2 solicitation in February; it's still pending a decision.

Hunter has repeatedly ripped the DCGS-A as inadequate and behind modern technology, including Palantir. In 2013 he grilled then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno on the topic during a hearing, and said he'd received reports that speaking negatively of DCGS had ended careers. The April 25 House Armed Services Committee hearing became testy when Hunter got up to leave the hearing before hearing a response from Odierno, who took exception. Odierno ultimately said the new network still offered greater intelligence capability than the Army's ever had, and called Hunter's criticism "anecdotal."

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