The Machine Approving the Failing Flying Robots

As I noted earlier this week, drones have proven to be very expensive failures in the last few weeks.Yesterday, Danger Room described yet another example, the Army’s Gray Eagle (and since I obsess about these things, note the failed chip).

Beginning in March 2011, “poor reliability across all major subsystems” led to delays [in the Gray Eagle program] that would seemingly never end, according to a report from Edward Greer, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for developmental test and evaluation. During the same month, a Gray Eagle drone crashed in California after a faulty chip blocked a subsystem from sending commands to “a portion of the aircraft’s flight control surfaces,” Col. Timothy Baxter, the Army’s project manager for unmanned aircraft systems, elaborated in an e-mail to Inside Defense.

“Flight testing was suspended,” Greer’s report added. The faulty chip was replaced and testing resumed, but the Army was now left with fewer available flight hours. The drone’s mean times between failures — or the average time the drone or a component works without failure — is also short. First, the drone itself has an average failure every 25 hours, short of a required minimum of 100 hours. The drone’s ground control station has a rate of 27 hours before a failure, short of a required 300. The Army has since lowered the requirement to 150 hours. The Gray Eagle’s sensors fare a bit better: 134 hours to 250 hours required.

Then the Gray Eagle was delayed again last October. The report concludes that for the 2011 fiscal year, the Gray Eagle is meeting only four of seven “key performance parameters,” and the drone’s “system reliability continues to fall short of predicted growth,” which could be a problem for the upcoming tests scheduled for August.

In spite of these failures, the government is pushing to accelerate our embrace of drones.

Here’s why.

In the Center for Investigative Reporting’s coverage of the DHS report I examined earlier in the week (which includes a number of additional examples where drones failed to perform as promised), they quote co-Chair of the Drone caucus and Homeland Security Committee member, Henry Cuellar, simply assuming “they” had a strategic plan.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, who has championed drones as the Democratic co-chairman of the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, said that Customs and Border Protection has to go back to the basics and come up with a sound strategic plan for its drones.

“The first thing any agency should have is a strategic plan. I assumed they had a plan,” said Cuellar. “We have to know where we are going before we start buying any more of the assets.”

Among Cuellar’s top donors are Global Atomics, the maker of the Predators CBP can’t use effectively as well as the Gray Eagle that keeps failing, as well as Boeing and Honeywell, which also sell UAVs.

Meanwhile, Republic Report points to an even more troubling example of failed oversight: the almost $500,000 a Northrop Grumman lobbyist was advanced to spend some time in Congress overseeing–among other things–the historically wasteful F-35 program and Northrup Grumman’s Global Hawk drone (the one that crashed earlier this week).

In 2011, after Republicans seized the House of Representatives in a landslide victory, the House Armed Services Committee, which oversees the military, gained a new chairman, Representative Buck McKeon (R-CA). As with most leadership changes, McKeon and his committee hired new professional staff. Thomas MacKenzie, a vice president at Northrop Grumman, was tapped to work for the committee beginning in March of 2011.

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Exploitation: How a “Recidivist” became a Double Agent

The Republicans are at it again: collecting lists of former Gitmo detainees they deem to have “returned to combat” and using those lists to fear-monger against transferring prisoners out of Gitmo.

Here’s the report the Republicans on the House Armed Service Investigations Subcommittee put out; here’s an excellent rebuttal from the Democrats, here’s Adam Serwer, and here’s Charlie Savage.

Subcommittee Ranking Member Jim Cooper summarizes,

The report was supposed to be a comprehensive and bipartisan look at former GTMO detainees, but fails at both objectives. Much of the failure is due to the majority’s insistence on releasing a public report during an election year. The majority is well aware that most of the relevant material is classified and politically sensitive. To their credit, committee staff did do a workmanlike job on the classified annex, which we recommend to all members. But the public report uses a highly problematic “methodology” in order to write ghost stories designed to scare voters. Americans deserve better.

Reports on terrorism should not further the terrorists’ goal of spreading fear. After all, terrorism is a double-barreled attack on civilization: violence is one weapon and publicity of that violence is another. Without publicity, the terrorist can never succeed. Regrettably, this report gives former GTMO detainees publicity by making them seem more numerous and dangerous than they are. Reengagers will like their image in the report.


The report concludes that, despite the admitted improvements in the Obama Administration’s handling of detainee issues, the number of former detainees who return to terrorism will be as high or higher. This is purely speculative, and seems politically motivated. Time will tell, but the current rate of confirmed reengagement of transferees under the Obama Administration is closer to 3%, not the report’s cover graphic of 27%. The lower figure does not, however, make headlines.

I will have more on the report later. But I wanted to point out one detail about how the propaganda list of who is a “recidivist” and who isn’t changes.

In the April 2009 list leaked to ruin Obama’s efforts to close Gitmo, the Saudi former detainee Mazin Salih Musaid al-Awfi was listed second on the list of those “confirmed” to have “reengaged” in terrorism along with Said al-Shihri.

Abu Sufyam al-Asdi al-Shihri–repatriated to Saudi Arabia in November 2007, and Mazin Salih Musaid al-Alawi al-Awfi–repatriated to Saudi Arabia in July 2007. On 24 January, a 19-minute video was released wherein al-Shihri and al-Awfi announced their leadership within the newly established al-Qaida in Arabian Peninsula.

But in this week’s list, al-Shihri appears all by himself (though still second on the list).

Said al-Shihri 17 (ISN 372) was transferred in November 2007 to the Prince Mohammed bin Nayef Centre for Care and Counseling (also known as Care) in Saudi Arabia.18 This is an initiative, operated by the Saudi government, meant to rehabilitate those believed to be terrorists.19 However, after completing the portion of the program requiring him to reside at the Care facility, al-Shihri left Saudi Arabia for Yemen despite putatively being barred from foreign travel. In addition to raising questions about the Saudi government’s ability to enforce travel restrictions on former detainees, al-Shihri’s arrival in Yemen allowed him and another former GTMO detainee to assume leadership of the newly established al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).20  They released a video announcing their roles.21 [my emphasis]

The report invokes al-Awfi, but don’t name him or explain why they don’t consider him among those “confirmed” to have returned to extremism.

Maybe this is why:

Mohammed al-Awfi’s is an extraordinary story. He went through the rehabilitation programme like the others from Batch 10, but then fled to Yemen where he starred in the al-Qaeda launch video.

Astonishingly al-Awfi later re-crossed the border into Saudi Arabia and gave himself up.

I have never understood why he did so.

The Saudis told me it was because he had received a phone call from his wife telling him to return to look after her and the children.

The explanation caused me to raise a quizzical eyebrow. I was told it is not unknown for the Saudis to use families as bait.

Al-Awfi is now living in luxury accommodation in Riyadh’s top security prison where he is being drained of every scrap of intelligence.

He has all the comforts of home, a well furnished flat and regular visits by a grateful and relieved family.

I can’t guarantee al-Awfi was working as a double agent–presumably like that other “rehabilitated” Saudi detainee who joined AQAP only to return to Saudi Arabia to dump key intelligence, Jabir al-Fayfi–the whole time. But it sure does look like it.

Which means among the former detainees whose story fearmongers used in 2009 to argue against closing Gitmo was, probably, a double agent collecting intelligence on what became AQAP.

For all we know, the Subcommittee may be doing the same again now–claiming people have “returned to action” when they haven’t, exactly. In fact, it’s not even clear they know for sure that their “returned fighters” are what they claim. The folks who might know best–the CIA–refused to cooperate with this report.

The committee believes the Central Intelligence Agency may have been able to provide additional insight on reengagement issues and resolve factual discrepancies identified during meetings with U.S. officials abroad. Headquarters representatives from the CIA declined requests, made at the behest of the subcommittee chairman and ranking member, to meet with staff. This impaired the committee’s efforts to evaluate fully this topic.

Which highlights how brilliant it was to recruit double agents at Gitmo (if you want to sustain the fear of terrorism). If successful, recruits might serve double duty, both infiltrating al Qaeda and providing intelligence, and serving as (apparently false) examples of how dangerous this foe really is.

Obama’s Secret Cyberwars

I sort of get the feeling that the entire legislative effort on cyberwar is going on in a classified annex.

Nevertheless, even from what we can see, we’ve got a dispute. As I noted a few weeks back, The House Armed Services Committee included a provision that explicitly granted DOD the power to conduct clandestine cyberwar activities in some situations, but required quarterly briefing on such activities.


(a) AFFIRMATION.—Congress affirms that the Secretary of Defense is authorized to conduct military activities in cyberspace.

(b) AUTHORITY DESCRIBED.—The authority referred to in subsection (a) includes the authority to carry out a clandestine operation in cyberspace—

(1) in support of a military operation pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (50 U.S.C. 1541 note; Public Law 107–40) against a target located outside of the United States; or

(2) to defend against a cyber attack against an asset of the Department of Defense.

(c) BRIEFINGS ON ACTIVITIES.—Not later than 120 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, and quarterly thereafter, the Secretary of Defense shall provide a briefing to the Committees on Armed Services of the House of Representatives and the Senate on covered military cyberspace activities that the Department of Defense carried out during the preceding quarter.

(d) RULE OF CONSTRUCTION.—Nothing in this section shall be construed to limit the authority of the Secretary of Defense to conduct military activities in cyberspace.

That seemed to be a response to earlier claims by DOD that it didn’t have to brief such things to Congress.

As it happens, that’s another of the sections of the Defense Authorization to which the Administration objects (though they did not issue a veto threat on it).

Military Activities in Cyberspace: The Administration agrees that appropriate military operations in cyberspace are a vital component of national security, but objects to Section 962. The Administration has concerns about this provision and wants to work with Congress to ensure that any such legislation adds clarity and value to our efforts in cyberspace.

The choice by administrations to conduct cyberwar under DOD’s auspices rather than CIA’s as a way to avoid oversight is something that John Rizzo (!) warned about. And the bill has already given the Administration an extra three months of secret cyberwar before it has to start briefing Congress compared to the original bill.

What kind of war is Obama waging in cyberspace it refuses to tell Congress about?