Army Secretary McHugh backs Odierno after row with Hunter

Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno's shouting match with Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calf., in Thursday's House hearing did not surprise Army Secretary John McHugh, who on Tuesday said Odierno was right to reject Hunter's complaint about the Army's effort to develop a high-priced cloud-computing network.

"The chief spoke for himself," said McHugh, in a nod to the outspoken general, during a breakfast with reporters in Washington known as the Defense Writers Group.

Odierno, in the rare public outburst last week, lost his cool after the congressman upbraided the two Army leaders during a budget hearing before the House Armed Services Committee. McHugh was trying to respond to the congressman when the general jumped in.

Hunter had scolded the duo for not responding to his office's complaints relating to the Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS), basically a network to link hundreds of intelligence sources to ground soldiers.

Odierno took offense at the implication that his staff did not care about the well-being of soldiers and let loose in a video going viral within military circles, first reported by Military Times.

McHugh, on Tuesday, revealed that Gen. John Campbell, vice chief of staff of the Army, spent "considerable time" with Hunter the night before the hearing discussing the program. But McHugh said he was not surprised the next day when the congressman posed a hostile question during the sparsely attended hearing.

"I was a member of Congress for 17 years, I'm not surprised by anything," said McHugh.

Here's what happened: Hunter, offering "not really a question," claimed that the 3rd Infantry Division was not being given an off-the-shelf cloud computing product already being used in Afghanistan. Hunter said that he wanted the Army to do more to use "innovation that exists in the open market in places like Silicon Valley" that already does what the Army wants. He cited Google and Apple cloud products.

"What we want is the best for the warfighter," he said, and began to walk off the bench.

"May we respond?" McHugh asked Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., prompting Hunter to return, saying, "We can talk all we want to, it's not going anywhere."

Odierno suddenly lit up.

"First off, I object to this. I'm tired of somebody telling me I don't care about our soldiers and we don't respond," the imposing general loudly interjected. "Everybody on my staff cares about it, and they do all they can to help. So if you want to bring up an anecdotal incident, let's sit down, talk about it, and we'll give it a response."

Hunter then said the Army had intelligence gaps, but before he could finish the thought, Odierno erupted, saying that the Army had "20 times" the intelligence capability at the division commander level than he did in 2003, and refused to yield to Hunter's attempts to respond.

On Tuesday, McHugh backed Odierno's argument.

"The example that he used was not correct," McHugh said, challenging Hunter's objection. "The commanding general [of the division] ultimately withdrew [the request]."

"I think it's important where we have discussions, even if we have disagreements, that we all are coming from the same basics and the same facts. I didn't get a chance to talk to him about that," McHugh said, and took some of the blame himself.

"I think the Army didn't do as effective a job, in retrospect, as I would have liked in setting the narrative on this discussion," he said. Too many people view it as an "either-or" choice between two systems, both of which McHugh says the Army needs.

"I certainly admit to that."

McHugh said last year the Army signed a new agreement with Palantir, which makes in intelligence integration software popular with deployed troops. But the system does not work within the Army's DCGS.  McHugh said the Army is ahead of Hunter and already is trying to help get their system "integrated into DCGS, so that we can have the information that is gathered through [Palantir's] system embedded into DCGS as strategic, analytical capabilities."

McHugh said he still has "great respect" for Hunter.

"We have committed ourselves to working with him."

UPDATE: Hunter's office contacted the E-Ring to object to McHugh's assertion on Tuesday that the command had rescinded its request for the Palantir system because the 3ID was not going back to Afghanistan after its upcoming return home. 

Hunter's spokesman, Joe Kasper, said they were surprised to see McHugh's remarks. Following Thursday's argument in the hearing, Hunter's staff thought they had an agreement with Army officials to avoid any additional public back-and-forth over the issue.

However, Kasper argued that the Army ran the clock out on soldiers deployed in Afghanistan who had been begging for Palantir for nearly a year. He also objected to McHugh's assertion that Hunter was mistaken about the request still being active, telling the E-Ring that Hunter was fully aware that the 3ID headquarters at Fort Stewart had ordered a "hold" on the request from Afghanistan, and referenced it during Thursday's hearing.

"There've been repeated requests for it that go back a year," a frustrated Kasper said, providing a list of requests and denials dating to May 2012.

Kasper said their side of the story is simple: Hunter talked to Gen. Odierno in February 2012, after which Odierno approved the use of Palantir for soldiers from the 82nd Airborne in one location in Afghanistan. When members of the 3ID paid a pre-deployment visit to the site, they saw the Palantir system and determined they wanted it, too. Rather than ask for approval for one site, the 3ID asked for "reach back" capability so that entire unit could use it. But that approval never came, which Hunter argues left an intelligence "capability gap" in the unit.

The Palantir system's attractiveness to some soliders in the warzone, Kasper said, is its ability to "detect IED incidents" by determining patterns in intelligence data.  

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images