Hoan Ton-That interviews Owen West, Former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations. & Low-Intensity Conflict, Former Partner at Goldman Sachs
By Hoan Ton-That INTERVIEWS
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?
The Clearview AI capabilities are in their infancy, with widespread potential. I could not list them all here. Distilled, anytime or anywhere intelligence officers would like to use names — most of the time — Clearview AI has a role.
After the withdrawal of American troops in Afghanistan, with the new technology available now in 2021, how would you approach combatting terrorism in a more effective way?
In 2017, Secretary of Defense Mattis refocused the Pentagon on Russia and China. Importantly, his defense strategy required us to cheapen our anti-terrorist techniques while building expertise in the gray zone where the Chinese and Russians were exploitive without firing weapons. Clearview AI has the potential to map the human battlefield where the enemy is flourishing.
What other lessons do you think the US Military will learn after the pull out of Afghanistan?
A risk manager is required, a combination of civilian policymakers and uniformed experts, but outside the chain-of-command. Today's Inspector General is not effectively performing this critical function.
When you tested Clearview AI, you found a really old photo of yourself before hiking Mount Everest. How did it feel to see that photo, and are you still doing marathons and other endurance sports to relax?
That was quite a surprise! I tell my boys all the time that with the ubiquity of phones and the Cloud, their every action is now on the record. At around 30-years-old, I realized that opportunity was fleeting. Certainly windows open as you age, but some close. So before the kids came along, my wife and I did multiple adventures. Now relaxing is watching high school sports.
You’ve recently moved to Menlo Park. As someone new to the Bay Area, how is it different from NYC and DC where you’ve lived previously?
The culture difference is acute. The New York area is finance. Silicon Valley is tech. On Wall Street, we don't share ideas between banks. You're brought up thinking most trades are proprietary. This extends outside the bank, even in suburbs like Greenwich. In Menlo Park, it's easy to meet with senior tech executives and share ideas. They understand that execution is key. Most big ideas are a dozen years old. There's an openness here that is refreshing. It's also one of the most poorly governed states/municipalities. We came from a blue state with a left-leaning governor. Here Connecticut policies would be viewed as right-leaning.
How do you think Clearview AI will change the world?
The Chinese originally harnessed the technology as population control. The U.S. has already demonstrated a different viewpoint. With the proper policies in place, I believe facial recognition in liberal democracies will be used as broad protections, not privacy invasion.
Clearview AI Advisory Board
Former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations. & Low-Intensity Conflict, Former Partner at Goldman Sachs
Owen West served as Assistant Defense Secretary for Special Operations (2017-2019) under Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. A veteran of the United States Marine Corps, he twice rejoined the military to participate in critical national security operations, once in 2003 for Operation Iraqi Freedom and again in 2006 as an advisor to an Iraqi infantry battalion. Owen West has a 20-year career as a senior energy risk taker/adventurer at Goldman Sachs where he was Partner in Charge of Global Natural Gas & U.S. Power. Mr. West is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.