By Mike Mount
As roadside bombs continue to be the top killer of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, a Republican House member is asking for a congressional inquiry into why an Army report favoring a system that increases detection of the bombs was altered to seem less effective, presumably to push an already existing Army system that troops said was inferior.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, also is asking congressional investigators to look into why some Army units that requested the bomb-detection system were denied access to it by the Pentagon bureaucracy.
The investigation request surrounds a new privately developed software system called Palantir, which according to U.S troops and commanders who have used it, is more effective in helping troops in Afghanistan track and predict the location of deadly roadside bombs than the existing Army system.
Earlier this year, after ordering the system pushed out to units in Afghanistan that had been urgently asking for it, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno requested the Army's Operational Test Command to report on Palantir by surveying troops who have used it.
Documents obtained by Security Clearance show that the initial report came back with overwhelmingly positive feedback on Palantir and recommended that more computer servers be put into Afghanistan so more units could use the system.
But despite the findings, the commander of the test command, Col. Joseph M. Martin, ordered the report destroyed and another report generated that removed favorable references to Palantir as well as the recommendation to add additional servers.
"Please ensure that any and all copies of the 25 April report are destroyed and not distributed," a memo directed by Col. Martin said.
"Upon destruction of the previous report, please confirm to me in email that all copies of the original report, dated 25 April has been destroyed," it continued.
The newer report would then seemingly push troops to use the service's own Distributed Common Ground System, a similar program already in use in the field but less favored by the troops that use it.
Odierno ordered an investigation into Martin's actions in July, according to officials familiar with the investigation who were only able to say the investigation was being led by a three-star Army general.
It is unclear what led Odierno to ask for the investigation, and Army officials were only able confirm there was an investigation.
"There is an ongoing investigation being conducted to determine the facts in the matter," said Army spokesman Lt. Col. Freddie Mack.
The presumed lack of transparency by the Army to use a senior Army general to investigate prompted Rep. Hunter to request a congressional inquiry, according to officials in Rep. Hunter's office.
This week Hunter wrote a letter to Odierno asking for answers to why Martin would change a report to prevent the expedited use of the software to troops in the field and forcing it to undergo more reviews.
"With so much at stake on the ground for our men and women, it is important that they receive the most technologically advanced assets available, whether it is an organic asset within the services or a commercial off-the-shelf product," Hunter wrote to Odierno on July 23, referring to the Palantir system.
"I am frustrated that even the Chief of Staff of the Army can't receive an honest and transparent assessment from his own independent evaluation command," Hunter said.
All of this started last fall when, after the success of the Palantir system with other U.S. military units, the Army's 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan urgently requested the system, but those requests were denied by the Army for reasons that remain unclear, said Hunter in a July 24 letter to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee requesting an investigation into the Army's actions.
He said that data at the time showed that the Palantir system indicated find-and-clear rates for roadside bombs was improved by 12%. Several other urgent requests by the 82nd also were denied until Gen. Odierno was told about the denials and stepped in to ensure the system was delivered to the soldiers.
Hunter said, despite Odierno stepping in, the unit still did not receive the software until February of this year because of resistance by Army officials who seemed to prefer the Army-developed intelligence software system called the Distributed Common Ground System.
Hunter also said he learned of other Army units that have since been denied requests to get the system while in Afghanistan and still have not received them.
Army officials did not respond to questions about the reason requests were denied to troops in the field who had requested the Palantir system.
But in another response to Security Clearance, Army spokesman Mack said, "The Army is currently using Palantir in-theater, and the service has signed (May 2012) a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) to assess integration of the technology in the Distributed Common Ground System."
"The Army plans to demonstrate Palantir capabilities within the Distributed Common Ground System program this September based on CRADA successes," Mack's statement continued.
A spokesman for Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said, "The secretary believes that the Army can handle this appropriately. And obviously, we will consult closely with Congress. The Department of the Army ... is consulting."