“Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status.”
When he said that, Laurence Peter, creator of the “Peter Principle” (“managers rise to the level of their incompetence”), could have been speaking directly to the U.S. Army bureaucracy, circa 2015. He might have gotten an especially grim laugh out of a short document published on the Army’s website called “DCGS-A supports 101st global efforts to contain spread of Ebola.” It tells a self-serving story of how a multibillion-dollar data platform known as the Distributed Common Ground System-Army is supposed to have aided the 101st Airborne Division in Liberia in its fight against Ebola.
Here’s a sample: “For the first time, the power of DCGS-A was leveraged to support a humanitarian operation on an unclassified network. Working closely with the deploying unit, Training and Doctrine Command Capability Manager Sensor Processing and Intelligence and Security Command tailored the system to synthesize data from non-DoD sources to create a common operating picture the deployed commander could use to coordinate activities with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), intergovernmental agencies (IGOs), and the government of Liberia.”
If you can find your way through the thicket of acronyms, the authors of the press release are telling us that the data-sharing enabled by this platform brought together the Army, aid organizations and the local government, making sure that everyone involved in the Ebola response sang from the same song sheet.
This sounds like the American humanitarian impulse at its very best: With the world in crisis, our superior strength and technology come to the rescue. According to the Army’s press release, the Distributed Common Ground System was the glue that held this rescue together, a key component of the overall U.S. response. It quotes Maj. Gen. Bob Ashley proclaiming that the Liberia mission “demonstrates the flexibility of the DCGS-A program,” trumpets its “unique and innovative” capabilities, and concludes: “Essentially, it was a scenario of being present at a critical time.”
This document is one of the many thousands of press releases sent into the ether each day, and like most press releases, it was written with the expectation that nearly no one would read it. As of this writing, the piece has zero shares on Facebook or Twitter. There was no discussion of it on the nightly news. It likely caused no surge of traffic to the Army’s website. And yet, in spite of all of that, it is an important piece that deserves more attention than it has received.
Why? Because it’s baloney.
Just two days after this press release ran on the Army’s website, the Washington Post published a story about the massive coordination and planning failures in the American response to Ebola in Liberia. The piece is a damning indictment, replete with stories of misallocated resources and time, misguided predictions about the disease and its impact, and military response that was too little, too late — a response that was anything but “present at a critical time.” At its core, the Post’s story is an account of the failure of aid organizations, agencies, local government, and the U.S. government to draw on the same information to make informed decisions about how to respond to the epidemic.
In other words, a failure of coordination — the very thing that the Distributed Common Ground System is supposed to have solved. If the system had the predictive and logistical power its supporters claim, there would be no empty tents set up months too late to treat Ebola victims, no $750 million largely wasted, no frustration from Liberian officials like Moses Massaquoi, the Liberian government’s chairman for Ebola case management, who, referring to the Ebola treatment centers, told the Washington Post, “If they had been built when we needed them, it wouldn’t have been too much. But they were too late.”
This isn’t the Distributed Common Ground System's first bit of bad press. Even a cursory glance at the headlines about it reveal a system into which the Army has poured billions without seeming to ever get what it paid for. Take a look at Robert Draper's frightening reporting from 2013: in the midst of the war in Afghanistan, the Army’s 82nd Airborne complained in an internal memo of being left to “struggle with an ineffective system while we’re in the middle of a heavy fight taking casualties.” But this ineffective system persists, in part because the defense contractors who designed its various components are powerful and well-connected — and because those contractors regularly reward friendly bureaucrats with lucrative jobs. Just as troubling, members of the Army brass who have staked careers on the system push hard for funding, gum up any efforts to use alternative technologies or resources — and sing the praises of the Distributed Common Ground System even when the praise is wildly unjustified.
The quo, in this case, lost its status long ago. There is an alternative technology to the system, developed in Silicon Valley and employed by the Marines and Special Ops, among others. It’s called Palantir, and it is faster at integrating data, less prone to crash, significantly less expensive, and vastly more effective. Soldiers who have seen it in action next to the Distributed Common Ground System have, at some risk to their careers, spoken to journalists about Palantir’s virtues and DCGS-A’s considerable flaws. One intelligence analyst used Palantir in Kandahar and told Draper, “I’d never been able to pull that level of detail together, certainly not that fast. I was sitting there like, holy s--t.” Yet the Army brass repeatedly rejected requests from troops in the field for permission to ditch DCGS-A — and the brass continues to hype DCGS-A far beyond what the facts warrant.
Aid organizations also use Palantir for precisely the kind of humanitarian work the 101st Airborne set out to do. But that itself is a sad commentary on Army bureaucrats: rather than employ an existing system used by aid relief and humanitarian workers, they chose to use a system built for war-fighting and intelligence gathering — and one that doesn't seem particularly effective.
The bottom line: There are lives lost and resources squandered because of a bureaucracy that has managed to withstand scrutiny, press inquiries, and even congressional efforts to switch to a platform that’s both cheaper and more effective.
I know — stories about bureaucratic failure can be dull. That’s just how failing bureaucracies want it, because our boredom can keep us from looking too closely. Yet part of our job as citizens is to look. In this case, we’ll see some things that make us proud: a tech industry that leads the world in innovation, and troops on the ground with the will to put that innovation to use for good, fighting disease, combating insurgencies, and protecting soldiers’ lives. But we’ll also see a Pentagon that’s failing to live up to the standards of the people it’s sworn to defend.