Obama Poised to Yank Top Military Intel Pick

An investigation into potentially illegal spending could leave the Pentagon's spy agency rudderless as it ramps up operations in Iraq.

U.S. Army
U.S. Army

The Obama administration is poised to abandon its pick to run the sprawling Defense Intelligence Agency amid two ongoing investigations into whether programs she had overseen have been marred by questionable and potentially illegal spending, according to administration officials and congressional sources with knowledge of the matter.

Lt. Gen. Mary Legere, who’s currently the Army’s top intelligence officer, has long been seen as the heir apparent to Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, the DIA’s current director, who announced in April his plans to retire this summer. Flynn, widely respected but also seen as a controversial reformer inside the military intelligence community, had been pressured to resign after butting heads with senior Pentagon officials who criticized him for failing to follow through on some of the plans he set out for the agency, such as focusing more on social and cultural analysis on the battlefield and trying to provide more strategic insights for senior leaders.

The White House has not nominated anyone for the job but lawmakers and U.S. officials have said that Legere has been the only one under serious consideration. The administration, however, is strongly leaning towards bypassing Legere and looking for someone else to fill the top post at the DIA, according to people familiar with the internal deliberations. That could leave the DIA, which employs nearly 17,000 military and civilian personnel and has a classified multibillion-dollar budget, facing a leaderless future just as it’s ramping up the collection and analysis of intelligence on the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which is seizing major cities in Iraq and threatening to march on Baghdad.

Legere is currently the subject of two internal military investigations that are making administration officials much more tentative about nominating her, according to government officials who are familiar with the proceedings. The first, and the more significant of the two, is looking into $93 million the Army spent on a controversial program meant to help soldiers share battlefield intelligence. Legere oversees the program, which uses a networked or "cloud" computing system known as Red Disk, and Army officials are investigating whether the Army paid for it by improperly diverting funds away from other accounts, including those set aside to fund the war in Afghanistan. Army investigators have said they want to know if the spending violated the Antideficiency Act, which was enacted in 1884 and prohibits government employees from spending money that hasn’t been appropriated by Congress. The Army’s intelligence system isn’t designed solely for Afghanistan, so using war funding may have violated the law.

Red Disk is meant to give military intelligence personnel and soldiers in different locations around the world access to the same information, including satellite images and video footage from drones. The Army had been planning to build a different cloud system, called UX, but shifted over to Red Disk, which was being run by the Army’s Intelligence and Security Command, two years ago. At the time, the UX cloud was still being designed for the Army by a consortium of defense contractors.

The switch prompted Rep. Duncan Hunter (R.-Calif.), one of Legere’s fiercest critics, to accuse her and the Army of spending money without congressional approval or oversight and building a duplicative and unnecessary system. Hunter says the Army switched to Red Disk to cover up for the failures of the original cloud program, for which Congress appropriated more than $128 million.

Obama administration officials now think that if the president were to nominate Legere, she and other senior Army officials would face more intense scrutiny and questions about how the service has been spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. "Poor judgment influenced some very bad decisions," said one congressional staff member, who requested anonymity while speaking about a sensitive matter. "That’s sure to be a focus of any potential nomination."

The Army started using Red Disk as part of a much larger and tortured program known as the Distributed Common Ground System. It’s meant to give troops on the ground an easy way to collect intelligence about terrorists and enemy fighters, and then create detailed reports and maps that they can share with each other to plan and conduct operations. But critics — and even some troops — have long complained that the system doesn’t actually work. They say it’s too slow and hard to use, and that it has left them searching for cruder but more effective alternatives in the war zone. The Army has already spent nearly $3 billion on the Distributed Common Ground System but has failed to meet key milestones for bringing it online.

Legere has been the embattled system’s most visible supporter, and that has made her a lightning rod on Capitol Hill, where Hunter in particular has railed against the Army for not using cheaper alternatives. Hunter has backed a commercial software developed by Palantir Technologies, which is headquartered in Hunter’s home state and has offices in Northern Virginia, not far from the Pentagon. The Palantir software would cost millions, rather than the billions that the Army has spent on its common ground system.

As Foreign Policy reported earlier this year, the Pentagon had hidden an internal report that found that Palantir’s software could handle many of the same jobs at a fraction of the cost. Legere and other Army officials have said that Palantir is more a tool than a comprehensive system, and that it cannot meet all of the Army’s requirements for the cross-cutting, battlefield intelligence platform, which is expected to cost nearly $11 billion over 30 years and is being built by a consortium of major Beltway contractors, including Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and General Dynamics.

In a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in May, Hunter said the fact that the Army has spent billions of dollars and still hasn’t delivered a working system pointed to "a disconcerting pattern of failed management and oversight [by Legere] that must be corrected, not rewarded." Hunter said there were "several other qualified candidates" to lead the DIA and urged the administration not to nominate her.

In an interview with the New Republic, which published an extensive article about the Army’s Distributed Common Ground System saga in June 2013, Legere said that the original UX cloud component was "experimental," and defended the decision to move to Red Disk. But UX was already being used at an intelligence center in Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, as well as a facility based at Bagram Airfield, in Afghanistan, which tended to undercut Legere’s assertions that it was experimental and hadn’t been fielded.

The second investigation that has imperiled Legere’s nomination, improbably, concerns spending by the military’s Korean War 60th Anniversary Commemoration Committee last year. As the head of all Army intelligence, Legere was assigned to lead the planning committee, which came under investigation for potential misuse of the private donations accepted to pay for the festivities. The law that allowed the Defense Department to establish the commission gave authority to accept private donations to fund the event. But officials familiar with the matter said the language on how the funds could be used was vague, and later prompted questions from lawyers about how the money was spent that triggered an investigation. Officials don’t believe Legere had anything to do with the way in which the funds were used, but she is nonetheless part of that investigation and the results might prove embarrassing to the administration if the claims were substantiated.

Time is running out for the administration to pick a new candidate to lead the DIA. While Legere’s formal nomination was expected by now, the latest it could come without leaving the agency without a director would be next week, congressional sources said. The Senate needs time to consider the nomination before it goes on recess in August, and Flynn is set to retire early that same month.

Flynn has been no fan of the Army intelligence system that Legere has publicly backed. In 2010, while serving as the director of intelligence in Afghanistan, he wrote a memo blasting the shortcomings of the Distributed Common Ground System, saying it "translates into operational opportunities missed and lives lost."

The controversy surrounding Legere could bring an abrupt end to a career that has long been marked by a steady climb through the ranks of the Army’s intelligence community. Legere had been seen as such a rising star that her name surfaced last year as a possible replacement for Army Gen. Keith Alexander when he prepared to retire as the director of the National Security Agency and the commander of U.S. Cyber Command. But naming another Army officer to the post would have broken with the NSA’s informal tradition of rotating among the branches of the armed services for its directors. It was the Navy’s turn, and the nomination ultimately went to Adm. Michael Rogers, who took office in April. If Legere isn’t nominated for the top job at DIA, it would likely scuttle any chances of her being posted to a top leadership post in one of the other intelligence agencies.

 Twitter: @shaneharris

Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He is also the author of FP's Situation Report, an e-mailed newsletter that is blasted out to more than 70,000 national security and foreign affairs subscribers each morning that includes the top nat-sec news, breaking news, tidbits, nuggets and what he likes to call "candy." Before arriving at FP, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he wrote on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular Morning Defense early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Latin America as well as at American military bases across the country. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including on CNN, public radio's Diane Rehm and To the Point, and C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children. Twitter: @glubold