Pentagon’s DARPA under investigation

AFP Photo / Tim Sloan
Before you spend millions on making sure your radio-controlled, laser-launching, glow-in-the-dark hippie-mobile is of utmost quality for next year’s Burning Man, you might want to check out eBay.

It was there that one recent bidder realized that the Pentagon is picking over their warehouse for parts and offering up high-tech gizmos for pennies on the dollar.

In preparing for this year’s Burning Man, the annual week-long romp through the Nevada desert that has been attracting radical-minded self-expression enthusiasts for decades, Cody Oliver logged onto eBay in hopes of getting a gadget that would help him rig a remote-controlled “art car” for use at the fest. The freelance technologist had in the past built rocket-like vehicles to blast through Burning Man, and this year wanted to take things up a notch.

He almost did just that when he stumbled upon an industrial-grade pair of Omnitech Robotoics NGCM1 controllers on the online auction site. For only $1,000, Oliver became the proud owner of some serious crap.

It turns out that not only is the Pentagon putting spare parts on eBay, but the government has been paying millions for what Oliver called “the hack of all hacks.”

“This is what they were selling to the government? Holy Shit,” Oliver tells Wired.

Upon accessing the source code on the including software, Oliver realized that the product was put together by Ionatron — the same company that the George W Bush administration handed over $30 million for to create remote-controlled vehicles that would shoot lasers through air channels.

Only $1,000 for what the US government spent $30 million on seems like less the hack of all hacks, but more the deal of all deals.

Despite the electronics costing the country a boatload, Oliver says the product itself was put together terribly. He tells Wired that the product was pieced together with over-the-counter electronics and controlled using a household Wi-Fi router, serial number scribbled off, with seemingly no security enacted.

Of course, Oliver had no idea at first they he was buying military leftovers. He didn’t quite notice until he inspected the goods and saw three buttons with some rather obvious and peculiar labels: “Enable Weapon,” “Weapon On” and “STOP!”

Easy enough for a child to figure out and easy enough for insurgents, as well. “All the video, all the commands, there were all in the clear, over standard 802.11 Wi-Fi,” Oliver tells Wired, noting that there was no encryption or password keeping the bad guys from logging into a standard Linksys router — the same one available for $30 at Best Buy.

It’s no surprise then that, after the US invested $30 million in Ionatron, they quickly suffered buyers’ remorse. One of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Neutralizers, or JINS, powered by Ionatron, rolled downhill and flipped over in the mountains of Afghanistan. The Pentagon, of course, had looked into purchasing 2,000 of those units, not before Ionatron failed and was forced to change their name.

The Washington Post wrote in 2006 that JINS had a difficult time in the Afghan mountains. Even papers out of the Pentagon notes that the system “suffers from extensive safety and maintenance problems.”

Ionatron ended up raking in nearly $17 million for their JINs, but posted operating losses of over $18 million in 2006.

Now it looks like even the Pentagon itself is becoming aware that improper spending might be something worth investigating.

The Pentagon announced this week that the Inspector General will be conducting an audit over the millions of dollars worth of deals that the Department of Defense has cut during the last years with DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA and the DoD have a contract that gives them the prestige of serving as the top researcher as far as Pentagon products go.

In hopes of making sure that military money is being put to good use, the Inspector General says that this audit will serve as “the first in a series of planned audits to review [DARPA's] contracting processes,” not because the Pentagon is worried that pennies are wasted — but just in case.

The Inspector will also be auditing every contract that DARPA has issued during the last two years, to “determine the adequacy of DARPA’s selection, award and administration of contracts and grants.”

DARPA has received certain scrutiny in particular due to its choice of subcontracting work to RedXDefense, the bomb detection firm that DARPA’s director, Regina Dugan, co-founded with her father. Despite family ties, DARPA (and thus the US government) gave $1.7 million in research contracts to RedXDefense recently.

And despite her role as director at DARPA, Regina Dugan still holds onto tens of thousands of dollars in stock at the company she started with her dad.

Meanwhile outside of the Pentagon and back west, Oliver had to pause before heading off to race rockets across the desert. Oliver, unfortunately, had to resort to other electronics.

As far as the Omnitech parts go, “I just don’t trust it,” he says.

If a technologist from San Francisco with nothing better to do than build rockets for Burning Man doesn’t trust it, should the rest of America? After all, millions of tax payer dollars are going into “the hacks of all hacks.”

Wired reports that a recently-retired official from DARPA says, “You could pull a lot of money out of that place if you really wanted to.”

“There really isn’t any due diligence there,” the source adds.

That being said, does the Pentagon need to preserve the $3 billion budget to DARPA with insiders saying money is being sent down the tubes? Probably.

In the meantime, it might be worth the DoD’s dime to check out Amazon for ammunition or maybe taking a quick browse through Craigslist. You can get some serious deals online if you’re really in the market for some new drones, I bet.

For the household consumer, Southwest Liquidators, the company that has been selling off the Pentagon’s scraps, still has a pretty packed eBay shop. As long as your forgo shipping, one Spectra Physics Beamlok model #2080 laser can be all yours for a Buy It Now price of $5,000.00.