Congress questions Army role in denying life-saving software to troops
By Justin Fishel Published July 26, 2012
Congress is set to launch an investigation into a brewing Army scandal over the difficulty some units have had in securing a software system designed to predict the location of roadside bombs — the No. 1 killer of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Though the software, called Palantir, is already being used by some troops in Afghanistan, more units have been requesting it and some of those requests remain unfulfilled. The 1st Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division sent a request in May citing an “urgent need” for the intelligence-gathering system and has yet to receive it.
What’s more alarming, said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, is that the Army stands accused of destroying internal reports that favor Palantir over its own system.
“The problem is (the Army) fell in love with their own software,” Hunter told Fox News.
Sounds like a great thing, huh? Sounds like the stupid brass is endangering our troops by not buying this new software. Heck, this whole story practically reads like an ad for Palantir.
Meanwhile, the Army says it’s working to integrate Palantir into more of its computer systems. But when asked about reports that it destroyed favorable reviews of Palantir, the Army responded with a written statement offering no explanation other than to say the matter is under investigation. That investigation is being conducted by an undisclosed three-star general, not the Army’s inspector general which typically handles internal investigations.
Well, what is Palantir?
It’s basically an extension of the all-seeing eye of Sauron from Lord of the Rings, used by his minion Saruman. Y’know, allegorical Satan and his henchman?
Businessweek did a story on Palantir a while back. It’s basically a gigantic snooping system to spy on everything and everyone at all times by cross-checking every bit of data in existence that can somehow be checked.
An organization like the CIA or FBI can have thousands of different databases, each with its own quirks: financial records, DNA samples, sound samples, video clips, maps, floor plans, human intelligence reports from all over the world. Gluing all that into a coherent whole can take years. Even if that system comes together, it will struggle to handle different types of data—sales records on a spreadsheet, say, plus video surveillance images. What Palantir (pronounced Pal-an-TEER) does, says Avivah Litan, an analyst at Gartner (IT), is “make it really easy to mine these big data sets.” The company’s software pulls off one of the great computer science feats of the era: It combs through all available databases, identifying related pieces of information, and puts everything together in one place.
Depending where you fall on the spectrum between civil liberties absolutism and homeland security lockdown, Palantir’s technology is either creepy or heroic. Judging by the company’s growth, opinion in Washington and elsewhere has veered toward the latter….
When that story came out, it was noted by a few folks, including Sipsey Street, but the interesting part comes later in the story:
Thiel, Lonsdale, and a couple of former colleagues officially incorporated Palantir in 2004. Thiel originally wanted to hire a chief executive officer from Washington who could navigate the Byzantine halls of the military-industrial complex. His co-founders resisted and eventually asked Alex Karp, an American money manager living in Europe who had been helping raise money for Clarium, to join as temporary CEO.
It was an unlikely match. Before joining Palantir, Karp had spent years studying in Germany under Jürgen Habermas, the most prominent living representative of the Frankfurt School, the group of neo-Marxist philosophers and sociologists. After getting a PhD in philosophy from the University of Frankfurt—he also has a degree from Stanford Law School—Karp drifted from academia and dabbled in stocks. He proved so good at it that, with the backing of a handful of European billionaires, he set up a money management firm called the Caedmon Group. His intellect, and ability to solve a Rubik’s Cube in under a minute, commands an awed reverence around the Palantir offices, where he’s known as Dr. Karp.
And then it gets worse from there:
At 44, Karp has a thin, sinewy physique—the result of a strict 1,200-calorie-a-day diet—and an angular face that gives way to curly brown, mad-scientist hair. On a November visit at Palantir’s headquarters, he’s wearing purple pants and a blue and orange athletic shirt. As he does every day, he walked to work. “I never learned to drive because I was busy reading, doing things, and talking to people,” he says. “And I’m coordinated enough to bike, but the problem is that I will start dreaming about the business and run into a tree.”
During the era of social networks, online games, and Web coupons, Karp and his engineers have hit on a grander mission. “Our primary motivation,” Karp says, “is executing against the world’s most important problems in this country and allied countries.” That’s an unusual pitch in Silicon Valley, where companies tend to want as little to do with Washington as possible and many of the best engineers flaunt their counterculture leanings.
Palantir’s name refers to the “seeing stones” in Lord of the Rings that provide a window into other parts of Middle-earth. They’re magical tools created by elves that can serve both good and evil. Bad wizards use them to keep in touch with the overlord in Mordor; good wizards can peer into them to check up on the peaceful, innocent Hobbits of the Shire. As Karp explains with a straight face, his company’s grand, patriotic mission is to “protect the Shire.”
This is a problem. This is statism in cute terms. This is a neo-Marxist who believes in the supremacy of the state, immediately getting in tight with the state, in order to “execute against the world’s most important problems”. Wanna bet his definition and yours as a free citizen disagree?
The analogy and their name is apt. The palantir was used for evil. A palantir outright used by a tyrant is easy to see as evil. A palantir used for spying on hobbits “to check up on innocent Hobbits” invades their privacy and is just another apparatus of the tyrant. So what happens if the hobbits don’t want to be spied on?
Or what about the nations of men, or elves, or dwarves, who aren’t keen on being relegated to pet hobbits of some ultra-powerful wizard?
For the analogy to work, it assumes that the citizen wants to be subject to being spied on at all times, as though their personal information should be collected and coallated by a massive government program, accessible to anyone who happens to have a link to Palantir’s network. This also assumes that a neo-Marxist weirdo who acts like a Bond villain is a good person to be designing and presumably have access to all government data everywhere, that a neo-Marxist with a Ph.D fro a neo-Marxist school in a philosophy that basically says people are at their best when being controlled by the state, should be manipulating all the information of the state at all times.
Now, going back to the beginning, there’s a good reason why the Pentagon should be suspicious. Palantir is marketed as an ultimate data-mining system to cross-check every database as an “infrastructure for analysis” – it doesn’t replace them all – it searches them all.
The secretive data-analysis startup, based in Palo Alto, Calif. and backed by early Facebook investor Peter Thiel, has suffered a number of blows to its public image of late. The most recent is the settlement of a lawsuit filed by rival i2 Group, based in McLean, Va., over accusations that Palantir employees fraudulently obtained i2 software and used it to design competing products.
Since Palantir touts itself as the product of fraud-detection technologies pioneered at PayPal, the payments startup Thiel cofounded, those charges present ironies, as i2’s lawyers eagerly pointed out in their initial complaint.
Separately, Palantir CEO Alex Karp issued a public statement apologizing for his company’s role in preparing a plan for Bank of America to strike back at Wikileaks, the Internet-based nonprofit group famed for obtaining and releasing sensitive documents into the public domain. The company also placed employee Matthew Steckman on leave after hackers released emails showing he was involved in preparing a similar plan for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to damage ThinkProgress, a pro-labor publication.
Isn’t that peculiar. Are they playing to their audience of statists, or are they damaging rivals, or what exactly are they doing? Wikileaks and ThinkProgress may both ultimately be bad entities, but that only compounds the untrustworthiness of Palantir.
Reading more about his mentor Habermas is also interesting, as he seems to be of a very Ozymandius-type utilitarianism that “we know what’s best”. His critique of religion as a tool to get people to do “what they should do” is somewhat sinister, as are many of his Marxist roots. It’s subtle, but it’s there.