YouTube video

As Google faced an internal employee revolt over its involvement in the Pentagon’s drone warfare program, the Obama-veteran firm WestExec stepped in to help. The case highlights the deep ties between the tech industry and government officials, says Yasha Levine, author of “Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet.”

Story Transcript

AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.

Last month, Google announced it would not renew its contract with a Pentagon initiative called Project Maven. Under the arrangement, Google supplies artificial intelligence technology to the U.S. military’s drone warfare program. Google announced its decision after an internal revolt and public protest. About a dozen employees resigned, and hundreds more signed an open letter saying, quote: “Google should not be in the business of war.”

The Google rebellion faced a pushback from lobbyists and insiders. According to The Intercept, one of the key players is a new company called WestExec Advisors, formed by several high-level Obama administration veterans. Former Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, who launched Project Maven while in government, is now a principal at WestExec. The Google incident and WestExec’s role both highlight the growing connection between the tech industry and government, and the lucrative opportunities for the former officials who take part.

Well, joining me is Yasha Levine, whose new book explores this issue and many others in depth. The book is called Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet. Welcome, Yasha. One thing I noticed after reading the story is that this dynamic of high level officials, after leaving government, went into the private sector. And then sort of being a conduit between the private sector and government is nothing new. Something you review in your book. Can you give us the background to this latest uproar between Google and Project Maven?

YASHA LEVINE: Yeah, well, just-. So Project Maven is a, is a defense, is a Pentagon initiative that tries to, wants to apply AI technology to some of, sort of, the Pentagon’s thorniest issues. And so part of it is getting AI technology to work with America’s drone fleet so that drones would be a bit more autonomous in their work. So they would be able to, you wouldn’t have to have a human operator looking at every, you know, looking at the video feed and trying to identify objects on a video feed, like cars and potential suspects on their own. And that the computer would do some of the basic work for it. So it would identify if it’s a car, what kind of car it is. You know, what kind of color. So that if they’re on the lookout for a particular suspect, or a particular type of car, or particular type of convoy, you know, the drone would automatically just flag that if it sees it, or if it thinks it sees it, and just alert the operator.

And so Google, which is just one of the contractors that’s working on this project, was trying to use its AI technology, and apply it to this task to help the Pentagon develop essentially vision, visual recognition and scanning technology for drones, so that they can more effectively target people for assassinations.

And when this information about this leaked, there was a growing movement within Google and a growing protest against this. And so there was an internal conflict. And in the end, employees signed a letter to the CEO saying, asking that, you know, that Google sever its ties to this program and not do this kind of work. And after some pretty tense weeks between the workers, the management of the company, which didn’t want to cancel the program, and then of course the publicity that, that that came out around that, Google announced that it wouldn’t cancel the contract, but it would not renew it next year.

AARON MATE: Right. But Google, as part of that announcement, did not rule out future contracts with the Pentagon. The significance of that, and what other types of relationships do you think Google and the military could be forming in the future, on top of those that they have now?

YASHA LEVINE: Well, look, I’m glad that people are looking at this, and that employees at Google are finding it problematic that Google works with the Pentagon to create more efficient- more efficient weapons, and more efficient tools of death. That is a good thing. But there is, there’s a lack of historical context, I think, around this debate. What we have to understand is that Google has been a Pentagon contractor since almost the moment that it became a private company. In writing my book, the earliest contract that I could find went back to 2003 with the NSA. Later that same year it signed a contract with the CIA. Both of those contracts were to provide these intelligence agencies with Google search technology, so internally, so the CIA and the NSA could use Google search tech, allow Google technology to crawl their databases. And they essentially have a Google search box internally in their networks that could allow people to retrieve data that’s stored there. And I think the CIA even had an internal Google search page. But in one of those it had the seal, the CIA seal.

And so that’s the beginning. And from there it increased. As Google grew, so did its military contracts. In 2007 it partnered with Lockheed Martin to develop technology that could create a visual intelligence system for Iraq that was used to identify hostile targets, and also friendly targets, on satellite maps. In 2008, I believe, it won a contract to run the CIA’s internal Wikipedia project. And in 2010 it won a no-bid project with the National Geospatial Agency, which is the sister agency to the NSA that deals in satellite intelligence. It won a no-bid contract to provide, to become the sole provider of satellite intelligence software that allows people to kind of zoom in and out on satellite photographs and satellite imagery, sort of like we do with Google Earth. But it was the Google Earth that was built specifically for the military, and uses by the military. And so that same year it launched a spy satellite in partnership with the same intelligence agency. So there is right now a spy satellite hovering above us, capturing photographs of the earth for both Google and the Pentagon. The higher quality, high-resolution photographs go to go to the Pentagon. The slightly lower-resolution photographs go to Google. The rocket, the Lockheed Martin rocket that put that satellite into space bore Google’s logo.

So you knowm the contracts, I can go on and on and on. But the contracts that Google has with the Pentagon are not limited to Project Maven. And the fact that it’s pulling out of Project Maven maybe doesn’t bode well for future Pentagon business. But it’s by far not the only, not the only one, and not the only thing that we should be worried about.

AARON MATE: So how much do companies like Google depend on the government, the Pentagon especially, both for their business, but also even for their creation themselves at the very beginning?

YASHA LEVINE: Well, as far as creation goes, Google would not exist without the Internet, right. And the Internet was created by the Pentagon. Starting in the 1960s, it was a massive program to create a modern command and communications system that would give the Pentagon, the military, total information awareness, and allow it to run a global empire, to have a bird’s eye vision of the world. That was what the Internet was about. It was about it was about creating that bedrock, the foundation for that kind of system. Of course, when the Internet began to be privatized in the 1980s and 1990s, the Pentagon didn’t go away. And in fact, it ceded many of the companies that we now use today, and that includes Google.

Google started out as a Ph.D. project. That project was funded by DARPA, which is the agency that created the Internet. Back then it was called ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency. Today it’s called DARPA, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. And so Google came into being because of a Pentagon grant. And in the paper that Sergey Brin and Larry Page wrote for Stanford that outlines the technology behind Google search, they explicitly call out DARPA by name for funding the research, and for allowing it to happen in the first place.

And so you know, the military roots of the Internet are very deep. And the military roots of many of the private companies that we use today are deep, as well. And so these are not, these are not things that just happened today, or last year, or the year before that. They’ve been going on for about as long as Google has existed.

AARON MATE: So finally, Yasha, just talking about this nexus between government and Silicon Valley, this company WestExec that we talked about. In terms of who it’s staffed by, we have people including Anthony Blinken, former Deputy Secretary of State under Obama. A former U.S. Ambassador to Israel under Obama, Daniel Shapiro. Lisa Monaco, former Obama counterterrorism advisor. Michele Flournoy, the former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense. Based on your reporting, your observations about the entanglement between government officials and Silicon Valley; how deeply they are connected, and how deeply officials profit from their connections after leaving government.

YASHA LEVINE: Yeah. I mean, there’s just, this is, this is a great story that was reported by Lee Fang of the Intercept. And it is just, it confirms the trend, right. Confirms the existence of this, of this close relationship. And there’s no- it doesn’t surprise me at all. I mean, you know, in my investigation of Google that goes back to their beginning, I’ve seen time and time again Google hiring and working with former intelligence officials, former Pentagon officials, to be their evangelists, as they call them, right. Evangelists for Google services. Evangelists for why Google should be the choice for modernizing national security infrastructure and communication infrastructure. And so it doesn’t surprise me. I think what’s interesting about this story is that it’s a third party group, right. That’s essentially a kind of private.

So it’s a third-party lobbyist for Google, for Google’s business. And so it’s able to keep somewhat of a distance, right. That they don’t work for Google, yet they were launched in collaboration with the Google think tank, Jigsaw, which is run by Eric Schmidt; or co-run by Eric Schmidt. So they can kind of still keep a bit of a distance from Google. And so as the reporting by Lee Fang showed, they’ve been acting as these third-party advocates. They’ve been quoted in the press, right, arguing for why this is not a problem; why Google working with the Pentagon, why Project Maven is not a problem. Why its critics should basically shut up, right, and should not- because if this project was canceled it would harm American security and national security, because it wouldn’t allow the military to modernize using Google technology.

So they’re very effective, they’re very efficient in that sense, because they can essentially lobby for Google while keeping a distance from it, and a certain sense of objectivity, or an appearance of objectivity.

AARON MATE: We’ll leave it there. Yasha Levine, investigative journalist, author of the book Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet. Yasha, thank you.

YASHA LEVINE: Thank you.

AARON MATE: And just to say we are in the final days of our fundraising drive. So if you want to support the work we do, please go to and hit donate. I’m Aaron Mate for The Real News.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Yasha Levine is an investigative journalist and author of "Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet," which will be out in February 2018.