Former Obama Officials Help Silicon Valley Pitch the Pentagon for Lucrative Defense Contracts

Google canceled a Pentagon contract for AI in drone targeting. But there's no shortage of national security work for Silicon Valley.

Photo Illustration: Elise Swain for The Intercept/Getty Images

Silicon Valley firms seeking lucrative business opportunities with the Pentagon face a range of obstacles, not least the morally fraught choice of enabling a military led by President Donald Trump with the latest technological solutions. Enter a group of former high-level officials from the Obama administration, who are helping to bridge the divide between tech firms and the Defense Department through a new company called WestExec Advisors.

“Think Scowcroft Group, Kissinger, RiceHadleyGates, Albright, but my generation,” explained Michèle Flournoy, referencing the myriad of consulting firms founded by former top national security and foreign policy officials, during an interview on Capitol Hill. Flournoy herself is the former under secretary of defense for policy and one of the co-founders of WestExec Advisors.

The sort of initiatives WestExec is posturing itself to spearhead, however, have grown controversial. In recent months, Google has faced an internal rebellion over its work with the Defense Department to deploy cutting-edge artificial intelligence technology for drone warfare, part of a Pentagon initiative known as Project Maven. The internal uprising led to Google executives announcing last month that the firm would not renew the military contract when it expires next year. And WestExec has found itself at the center of the storm, with the consultancy’s officials deeply involved with the project and wading into the media firestorm that was set off by the Google employees’ objections.

“The revolving door is a longstanding feature of the military-industrial complex, and it can lead to distorted policy decisions.”

WestExec’s story will be a familiar one for those who keep track of how private companies wrangle government contracts: through the help of officials walking through the revolving door between public service and businesses that take in large amounts of government cash.

“The revolving door is a longstanding feature of the military-industrial complex, and it can lead to distorted policy decisions based on the financial interests of former government employees who use their expertise and contacts in government to press policies that may or may not be in the national interest,” said William D. Hartung, an arms control expert with the Center for International Policy. “This phenomenon is now spreading to efforts to get Silicon Valley firms to collaborate with the Pentagon on issues like artificial intelligence and drone image recognition technology.”

In the May interview with The Intercept, Flournoy explained the types of former officials who work with WestExec. “People recently coming out of government,” she said. “Mostly deputies, who have current knowledge, expertise, contacts, networks. And what we do is a couple things: What we do is we help U.S. companies that are working overseas deal with external risks that might affect their business, and we help tech firms who are trying to figure out how to sell in the public sector space, to navigate the DOD, the intel community, law enforcement.”

WestExec, Flournoy said, helps bridge the Pentagon-Silicon Valley divide by answering a series of questions. “How do we use the move towards the cloud to access the cutting-edge software out there in the Valley or wherever, or even AI capabilities?” she said. “How do you help the Department of Defense or others access that in the commerce sector?”

The company provides “comprehensive government relations and other nuanced stakeholder mapping strategies to help them advance their objectives,” according to its website. The client list is confidential and their work is largely done behind closed doors.

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 29:  Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work speaks with colleagues prior to testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee September 29, 2015 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony on the topic of  "United States Cybersecurity Policy and Threats."  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Then-Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work speaks with colleagues prior to testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Sept. 29, 2015 in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

WestExec had been working to grow its business when the Google controversy popped off. As a result, WestExec Advisors’ team has appeared in media accounts of the flap, sharply criticizing Google workers for protesting against the contract their firm had signed with Google. At the center of the controversy is former Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, who launched Project Maven while in the government and now serves as a principal at WestExec Advisors.

In recent weeks, Work has lashed out at the Google rebellion. “I believe the Google employees created an enormous moral hazard for themselves,” Work said, speaking at a summit last month organized by the industry-friendly publication Defense One. Google, Work later noted to the Associated Press, is “very, very good” at helping the military improve its performance.

Work said he was “alarmed” to see the Silicon Valley company abandon the Project Maven initiative, adding that he hoped “it’s not a canary in the coal mine” that presages other technology firms distancing themselves from Defense Department contracts.

WestExec’s brief history is closely bound up with Google. The consultancy launched as an official “strategic partner” to Jigsaw, Google’s in-house think tank, which was formerly known as Google Ideas.

The partnership with Jigsaw, Flournoy said, was aimed at figuring out how to “bring the national security and cybersecurity communities together” to develop policy that incorporates transformative technology. “We do not have Google as a client — yet,” she added.

A spokesperson for Jigsaw explained the relationship in a statement: “As a research and technology organization, Jigsaw’s relationship with WestExec consists of information sharing about the role of technology in global security issues.”

Jigsaw, which deploys technology to address problems ranging from terrorism to hate speech, has served as an informal platform for Google’s relationship with the U.S. government.

In 2012, Jared Cohen, the founder of Jigsaw, emailed then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to pitch a Jigsaw project in Syria aimed at promoting the rebellion against the Syrian government. “Our logic behind this is that while many people are tracking the atrocities, nobody is visually representing and mapping the defections, which we believe are important in encouraging more to defect and giving confidence to the opposition,” wrote Cohen, who himself served as adviser to Clinton and, before her, to President George W. Bush’s Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The relationship between WestExec Advisors and Google troubles Lilly Irani, a professor at the University of California San Diego, who was one of the first to sign the academic petition protesting Google’s drone contract.

Jigsaw’s partnership with WestExec does not inspire confidence that Google will stay out the business of war,” she said. “These partnerships suggest that Google cultivates relationships with people closely tied to defense and law enforcement.”

“These partnerships suggest that Google cultivates relationships with people closely tied to defense and law enforcement.”

“Google’s own workers and now the ACLU have joined the chorus of voices asking for a separation of military and police operations from the data sets of private corporations who store our photos, email, and location data,” Irani added, referencing the Google workers’ rebellion and an American Civil Liberties Union-led coalition discouraging the sale of next-generation facial recognition technology to the government. 

Tech giants have increasingly courted controversy by selling solutions to the security state. Amazon, one of the contractors on Project Maven, also came under fire this year for pitching its facial recognition solution, known as Rekognition, to police departments around the country. Microsoft employees protested after the revelation that the company provides cloud computing services to U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement.

WestExec Advisors was co-founded by Antony Blinken, a former deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration, and the firm touts an impressive array of other other retired senior officials, including the former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, and Lisa Monaco, a former counterterrorism adviser to Barack Obama.

Leading proponents of greater collaboration between private sector technology firms and the military have also landed at WestExec Advisors. One of the firm’s principals, David S. Cohen, was a former CIA deputy director. He had previously called for the agency to “expand our direct outreach to commercial digital entities” and helped oversee the establishment of a new “business portal in Silicon Valley” to “identify cutting-edge technology” that the CIA could deploy.

For the military, the prospect of harnessing private sector technology seems boundless. The initial Project Maven contract focused largely on image recognition, using machine learning to help drone analysts identify buildings, individuals, vehicles, and events on the battlefield that would assist with targeting efforts.

The drone analysis project, however, is just a beginning of a vast revamping of military capabilities. The Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team, the official title for Project Maven, made clear in its initial launch memo that the drone targeting efforts were simply the Pentagon’s “first task” in a broad embrace of new technological solutions designed to enhance the battlefield capabilities.

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