When Technology War Kills Our Own Soldiers

Mark Baisley

2/16/2014 12:01:00 AM

 

You know that workmate of yours who pins you down with marathon verbosity? That one whose personal mantra is, “Why use 50 words when five thousand will do?” Well, while pouring my first cup of break room coffee on a Monday morning, I asked that guy about his weekend. I immediately clutched at the air in a futile attempt to retrieve my question before it made to his ears, but the damage had already been done.

I surrendered with a lean against the kitchenette counter and just hugged my coffee mug to patiently await the slow moving train that was about to block my good intentions of productivity. My fellow, tedious aerospace engineer friend surprised me with his opening response, “I had a terrible weekend. My wife and I were blackballed by the judges in our ballroom dance association.”

So I leaned back, infused myself with caffeine and listened as this tragic and complex storyline unfolded. It did not take long before the plot began to ring familiar. There was a lofty mission, a protagonist on his quest, and a cruel antagonist. No doubt years earlier, the antagonist had been the protagonist climbing the ladder of accomplishments, learning the moves and paying the dues. And now he jealously guards dominion over his mini-oligarchy, heartlessly crushing the ambitions of any maverick talent.

To my very pleasant surprise, I found myself intrigued at the narrative; not for the subject matter, but for the familiar drama. Sure, Lyle’s account was exhaustive. But that is what made it captivating. He could just have readily been teaching a graduate course on the rise of the Third Reich. As the break room monologue plodded along, my imagination would swap out ballroom dance judges with the bullies in middle school, the snobs in union leadership, and entrenched Republicans.

A much weightier example of power keeping grip on position is impressively chronicled in Bob McCarty’s recent book, The Clapper Memo. McCarty leveraged the intuition of his twenty-year career as a public affairs officer in the United States Air Force to investigate a nettlesome mystery within the Department of Defense. His book uncovers the federal government’s curious commitment to polygraphs as the exclusive tool for determining the veracity of statements made by captured combatants, foreign soldiers working closely with U.S. troops, and U.S. citizens with access to classified material.

From August of 2009 through January of 2013, McCarty dogged the trail of directives by a series of autocrats that polygraphs alone would be authorized when interviewing defense contractors, prisoners at GITMO, and Afghanistan troops entrenched with American soldiers. A competitive technology, the Computer Voice Stress Analyzer, emerged long after the polygraph method became the established standard. The evidence of McCarty’s research is that the more promising voice analysis technology has been held at bay in a “turf war” by order of the Director of National Intelligence.

This would be an annoying so-what if the result were merely to deny field operators their weapon of choice, e.g. PC versus Mac. But this willful indifference to asset requests may very well have cost American lives. Before its use was prohibited by Director Cambone, appointed by Don Rumsfeld in 2003, and subsequently re-prohibited by James Clapper, appointed by President Obama in 2010, analysts demonstrated far superior effectiveness in Afghanistan and Iraq with the Computer Voice Stress Analyzer. Add The Clapper Memo to Benghazi and Extortion 17 in the list of unsavory decisions made by leaders who do not seem to be engaged in the mission. David Schippers, the former Director U.S. Department of Justice and Chief Investigative Counsel for the Clinton impeachment hearings calls McCarty’s book, “the most thorough investigative reporting I have encountered in years. This is how it’s done.”

My old friend Lyle, while lacking in succinctness, is a sweet man who invests himself in the mission, both at his vocation and his avocation. The consequences of electing a micromanager as president of the state ballroom dance association may be the unjust humiliation of an assiduous engineer and his devoted wife of 40 years. But on the larger stage, far more than self esteem is at risk.