TheWashington Posts event programming hasa way of obscuring corporate power.
On Veterans Day, national-security columnist David Ignatius hosted aWashington Post Liveevent on theDigital Transformation of the Military. Major military contractor Raytheon sponsored it, but that was the most obvious and least fishy part of the whole setup. Onstage wasa prominent Washington consultant and two of her clients.
Ignatius led a conversation on military technology with former Obama Defense Department officialMichle Flournoy, who co-founded the consulting firmWestExec Advisors. She spoke alongside former Google executiveEric Schmidt, and the next session featured Brandon Tseng from the drone company Shield AI. The panelists talked about how artificial intelligence will affect warfare, competition with China, and new technologies that are pushing the envelope.
Pleasantries were exchanged. Disclosures were not.
Left unmentioned: Flournoy has advised Schmidts powerhouse philanthropy Schmidt Futures; WestExec has partnered with the Google think tank Jigsaw, which Schmidt founded; Schmidt and Flournoy hosted a Biden campaign fundraiser last year; Flournoy recently joined the board of Schmidts policy initiative the Special Competitive Studies Project; and Flournoy has personally advised Shield AI.
David and the staff were not aware of most of the connections you cite, wrote Kristine Coratti Kelly, thePosts chief communications officer, in an email. We always want to err on the side of full disclosure to help aid the audiences understanding of a guests perspective, and we plan to revisit the research we do to ensure the right disclosures are made in our interviews.
At the event, Ignatius described WestExec, a concierge service for would-be corporate contractors, as a firm which tries to bring smaller high-tech companies into the sometimes-overwhelming world of Pentagon procurement. Asking Flournoy about how she does that would have led to a fascinating conversation, but instead she discussed her clients in the abstract without any disclosures.
The web of influence that surrounds military technologies is nefarious, but so is the whole concept of sponsored events.
In your current work with WestExec, are there examples of where you see companies that have good ideas in this AI space that just cant break through the wall of Pentagon procurement to get their ideas examined and taken seriously? Ignatius asked Flournoy.
In response, Flournoy talked up the next participant on the Washington Post Live agenda, Tseng from Shield AI, who is using AI to enable special operations teams to map who is inside a potential enemy compound before the first guy goes through the door. She didnt reveal that her firm WestExec has worked forShield AI, according toThe New York Times. Flournoy in particular advised Shield in developing an ethical framework for its technologies,Wiredhas reported.
Shield recently won parts of a $14 million Pentagon contract tobolster U.S. drone productionand a multibillion-dollar Air Force contract to enable collaborative teams of robots. In August, it raised$210 millionin Series D capital financing, bringing it one step closer to its goal of becoming a 21st century defense prime.
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Do revolving-door connections help the company grow its client base? It cant hurt. In a recent social media post, Shield boasted that Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall III, himself a former military contractor, dropped by its booth at a trade conference.
Ignatius had previously writtena columnabout Shield AI without noting its connections to WestExec. Its quite an oversight since its no minor consultancy:More than 17 of its membershave gone on to key national-security positions in the Biden administration, notably Secretary of StateTony Blinken, who co-founded WestExec with Flournoy. Some of those officials will inevitably play a role in regulating the future of autonomous weapons.
Schmidt was given the opportunity to tout his new book on artificial intelligence, co-authored with none other than Henry Kissinger. Flournoy called Schmidts public-sector work with the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence probably the most important commission report since 9/11, without mentioning that Schmidts deputy chair, Bob Work, is also a WestExec consultant.
Most troubling, the commission has pushed a new arms race by advising the Pentagon toexplore killer robots. Ethicists and human rights defenders are alarmed. A key question is where the Biden team will come out in regulating autonomous weapons and killer robots.One clue is that Blinken and Flournoys consulting firm WestExec was eager to work for autonomous weapons makers and military tech, like Shield AI.
The web of influence that surrounds military technologies is nefarious, but so is the whole concept of sponsored events. The host has no incentive to grill an underwriter, like Raytheon, which is also entering this new commercial space of military drones and AI-enabled technologies.
Live events lend themselves to chummy conversations.Recently, thePostpublished a brilliant investigative story on the formerU.S. generals who cashed in after Afghanistan, chief among them Stanley McChrystal. Amonth later, Ignatius hosted McChrystal for a friendly chin-wag about his new book onWashington Post Live.
A similar dynamic played out recently at the augustAspen Security Forumearlier this month. Washington policymakers spoke on stages sponsored by military contractors, including Raytheon and the well-funded startupRebellion Defense. So when executives from both those companies spoke about Preserving Americas Technological Edge, they were asked about cryptocurrency and the metaverse, not tough questions about influence, conflicts of interest, and the human rights issues concerning artificial intelligence. Little wonder that Aspens chair isNicholas Burns, Bidens nominee for ambassador to China and a seasoned adviser to defense contractors.
It is disappointing that none of these connections were shared with viewers. The role of corporate money in policymaking is also important to understanding the future of military technology.