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Owen West

Hoan Ton-That interviews Owen West, Former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations. & Low-Intensity Conflict, Former Partner at Goldman Sachs


Hoan Ton-That and Raymond Kelly

When we first met, you mentioned that the first thing you implemented when you were serving in Iraq was a biometric system to help identify people in your village. How did it work, and how long did it take until you got positive results, and how did it enhance safety?

One principle of counterinsurgency, also known as war among the people, is conducting a census. This is especially important for armies that rotate in and out of the battlefield, as do Americans. Bizarrely, the U.S. never did this in Iraq or Afghanistan. So in our little Iraqi city, home to about 20,000, we conducted our own census. We commissioned a simple fingerprint scanner that connected to a local database, stored in the Humvee while on patrol. In under two weeks, we began to see the impact. The insurgents were fearful of it because we swiftly mapped their social connections. Ultimately the locals felt comfortable enough to reveal the enemy living among them, knowing we had a system in place to expose them.

In 2007, you wrote an op-ed in the NYTimes called The Laptop Is Mightier Than the Sword where you said: “The war in Iraq would be over in a week if the insurgents wore uniforms. Instead, they hide in plain sight, and Iraqi and American soldiers have no means of checking the true identity and history of anyone they stop”. What were the deficiencies of the biometric technology that was deployed in Afghanistan & Iraq?

On balance, the U.S. military provided few biometric tools to its units. Most units never used a retina or even a fingerprint scanner. If we had a much more advanced technology like Clearview AI, it would have allowed rapid population recognition, and impacted the war effort immediately.

You were also a partner and energy trader at Goldman Sachs. What was your most memorable trade?

For twenty years I traded the world's most volatile commodities, power and natural gas. It imbued a sense of risk-reward that is elusive in most businesses, including the military, where commanders are not given a graphical risk system to aid decisions.

You also went back voluntarily into Iraq again, giving up the comforts of life here in the USA. What motivated you to serve again?

After 9/11, most Marines I served with in the peacetime 90s wanted to fight. Many of us followed through. It is innate in most infantrymen.

Some investigators have told us that if you ran some of the recent photos of the Taliban through Clearview AI, there are videos of them on Youtube at mosques preaching hateful propaganda. What other application do you believe the technology has for military intelligence?