The office at the Pentagon tasked with overseeing its artificial intelligence (AI) strategy is so plagued with incompetence and mismanagement it has hired an outside consulting firm to help figure out how to fix it.
Earlier this year, a federal workplace climate survey showed that the office, known as the Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office (CDAO), ranked the lowest of all the offices in the Pentagon on “leadership” — scoring -17 on a scale of -100 to 100.
At a Pentagon briefing this month, Breitbart News asked Dr. Craig Martell, the leader of the CDAO, what steps have been taken since the survey to improve things. Martell responded, “We hired an organization called Gapingvoid. They’re helping us think through and work through our department, and they’re doing surveys throughout the whole department.”
He added, “Gapingvoid is going through all of our leadership and all of the teams and figuring out where they feel things are frustrating, where they feel things are working, and then they work with us and the leadership teams to figure out the kinds of changes we can make to address those issues.”
However, five sources who wished to remain anonymous told Breitbart News that things are still as bad as ever since the survey.
“There is still a gaping void and nothing’s changed,” one source quipped.
Sources recently told Breitbart News that Martell admitted on a Zoom call with staff last week that he is actively looking for a new job.
The sources said Martell began the call by insisting he was not looking for a new job, but then later talked about his transition plan, and then during a Q and A admitted he was already in serious enough talks with private companies that he had to consult the Pentagon’s ethics office to see if it created conflicts of interest with his current job. According to the sources, he reassured staff that it would take a year before anything became a reality.
“Morale is so bad in his [organization] even he wants to quit,” a second source said.
Martell’s departure would follow a string of departures from CDAO in recent months. Those who are soon departing or have departed in recent months include Joe Larson, CDAO’s deputy chief digital and AI officer for algorithmic warfare; Clark Cully, CDAO’s former head of policy; Dan Folliard, CDAO’s former chief digital and AI officer at U.S. Special Operations Command; and Greg Little, CDAO’s former deputy for enterprise capabilities.
Sources said more senior-level employees are looking to leave. “They have either interviewed or been a part of group interviews to be able to move or leave from this organization,” the first source said.
CDAO was announced in December 2021 but formally established in June 2022. Its mission is to accelerate the DOD’s adoption of artificial intelligence, data, analytics, and other emerging technologies to give warfighters an advantage over adversaries. It was also recently put in charge of implementing the Biden administration’s artificial intelligence strategy at the Pentagon, which is to further integrate AI-enabled technologies throughout the department.
The initial purpose of CDAO was to consolidate and streamline the efforts of four separate initiatives at the Pentagon that had overlapping missions: the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC), the Defense Digital Services (DDS), the office of the Chief Data Officer, and the Advana program.
However, a third source said what resulted was a “pile of sh-t … with a blanket over it.”
Google’s China-based AI “Manhattan Project” with military applications should be investigated by the FBI and CIA, said Peter Thiel. https://t.co/3owxGhI59K
— Breitbart News (@BreitbartNews) August 14, 2019
Sources said what initially began at the Pentagon in 2016 as “Project Maven” — a small and nimble artificial intelligence initiative — has turned into a bloated bureaucratic mess and “complete and total disaster.”
Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks has overseen CDAO’s establishment, and sources said she handpicked Martell, who came from Lyft, and his deputy Margaret “Margie” Palmieri, a civilian and “department insider” who has served in a number of different assignments for the U.S. Navy and in the Pentagon.
The sources said Martell works remotely from the West Coast, despite CDAO being headquartered at the Pentagon — an arrangement that has effectively left Palmieri in charge. The sources said Palmieri is running CDAO “into the ground.”
They said Palmieri has brought in a team of loyalists who are unfamiliar with the issues, instead of conducting an open hiring process or promoting from within, and has micromanaged all personnel decisions.
The first source told Breitbart News:
Our HR is just absolutely horrible. They don’t respond to anyone unless it’s Margie Palmieri. So Margie has direct control of who she hires. And she’s hired folks at the GS-15 position. I refer it as a “friends and family” plan where she takes care of people that she likes.
The source added, “She’s brought on her own team of folks who don’t know the issue sets and are causing complete disarray and consternation on key issues. … She’s created a small cabal of people who she trusts. And so, the 600 government employees that she’s hired — a total of 1,700 people when you add contractors — they’re frustrated with their leadership.”
According to sources, Palmieri brought on two people who work in California and have “no situational awareness of what’s going on in D.C.”
“Because of that, they can’t do their job. One guy’s name is Mark Evans and the other person is Rafianne Doyle … they’re paying her almost $450,000 as a remote worker to fly in and out from California,” the source said. “So all that waste, fraud, and abuse, but they can’t pay for parking for people to park here in a building in Crystal City.”
Meanwhile, the second source said “numerous people” were promised promotions or bonuses and never received them or they were not hired into the positions that they were promised.
In addition, sources said there are a large number of people within CDAO whose roles are unclear. “You’ve got probably a delta of 1,100 contractors and people don’t know what they do,” the first source said.
CDAO workers are also spread across three different buildings. “They can’t even seat everyone in one location,” the first source added.
This lack of direction and cohesion has been exacerbated by the office’s lenient remote work policy put into place during the COVID pandemic that is still in effect, the sources said. They said some people have even moved to different states.
One alleged senior teleworker is Sharothi Pikar, deputy CDAO for acquisition and acquisition executive. The first source said she was so absent that Hicks had to ask the Pentagon’s deputy under-secretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment to provide someone to oversee CDAO contracts because Pikar “is never at work and can’t functionally lead her people.”
The sources said the Palmieri has also brought in people with conflicts of interest, pointing to a CDAO official named Dan Hake, whose wife until about a month ago worked for a decade at Palantir, a government contractor and competitor of companies bidding for contracts for CDAO. She is now at Maxar Technologies, which, as another government contractor could also pose a conflict of interest.
A third source said CDAO is wasting money on personnel and not spending enough on solutions for the warfighter.
“They’re wasting it. And they don’t have enough. They are reallocating resources for contracts that have already been instantiated. And they’re doing that with personnel that they have brought on board to serve their own personal interests, rather than those of the American people or taxpayer,” the third source said.
The source cited Doyle and Evans’ alleged salaries, adding, “You will pay half a million dollars to bring these people on and then divert those funds from other contracts where you had commercial entities that were deploying and delivering commercially available technologies that support a warfighter more rapidly than a government could possibly ever do.”
“And because you do that, you no longer have the capacity to deliver in a crisis or wartime environment, i.e. the Israeli threat. You don’t need a supplemental to be passed in order to do your job if you’ve actually been budgeting appropriately,” the source added.
The sources said it is not just morale and spending that is suffering, but the Pentagon’s entire mission of trying to stay ahead of adversaries on artificial intelligence.
“What’s at stake right now is not only not having the appropriate and correct professionals in place in order to beat China, but then you don’t have the necessary knowledge to not only field AI technology so you can get the feedback necessary in order to properly iterate, but then you don’t know how to accurately baseline that,” the first source said.
“So if someone were to ask Martell, ‘How do you know we’re in front of China?’ Nothing he says could actually be factually accurate, because he’d have no indication or way to actually measure that,” the source said.
CDAO’s own website states that it is “building a strong foundation for data, analytic, and AI-enabled capabilities to be developed and fielded at scale” and that “part of this foundation is ensuring the Department has the necessary people, platforms, and processes needed to continuously provide business leaders and warfighters with agile solutions.”
CDAO has announced the launch of Digital On-Demand – an initiative to accelerate #AI knowledge by providing access to ‘MIT Horizon’ a library of learning resources for the entire DoD enterprise. Read about it here: https://t.co/Kvaxgf7HsP#MITHorizon #DigitalUniversity #Trek10
— DOD Chief Digital & AI Office (@DODCDAO) November 16, 2023
It also states that one of its “critical functions” is to “provide a sophisticated cadre of technical experts that serve as a de facto data and digital response force able to address urgent crises and emerging challenges with state of the art digital solutions.”
However, according to the sources, CDAO is failing at both.
The sources said they believe Hicks is unaware of all the dysfunction at CDAO. She recently personally announced the Pentagon’s AI strategy with fanfare earlier this month, which CDAO is in charge of implementing.
“This is a priority deputy secretary of defense issue. She directly hired Martell and directly hired Margie. So this is her initiative, and she’s failing. And no one’s willing to tell the emperor that she has no clothes on,” the second source said.
Breitbart News reached out to the Pentagon for a statement. A CDAO spokesperson responded with the following statement:
A workplace culture built on trust and transparency fosters innovation and progress and is key for the success of CDAO. The workplace survey results released earlier this year highlighted that we have some work to do in this area.
“There is not a quick, one-quarter solution to this subject. Culture change takes time; we value our employees’ feedback and are taking meaningful strides to accelerate improvement across the CDAO,” the spokesperson added.