Deploying the The Snake Eater in Khalidaya

A much needed biometric technology is brought to the battlefield in Khalidaya

The Snake Eater in action. Click photo to view.

In the middle of January, I embedded with the joint U.S. Marine and U.S. Army Military Transition Team based in Khalidaya in Anbar province. The MTT was then commanded by Major Owen West. Major West’s greatest criticisms of the war effort is our failure to recognize the nature of the insurgency, which in many parts of Iraq is fought by applying what he calls “heavy police tactics,” and our failure in applying the right tools to deal with the problem.

Daniel Henniger of the Wall Street Journal’s Opinion Page has written an article about how a group of people looked to solve part of this problem. Mr. Henniger describes the enterprise as such, and well: “This is a story of can-do in a no-can-do world, a story of how a Marine officer in Iraq, a small network-design company in California, a nonprofit troop-support group, a blogger and other undeterrable folk designed a handheld insurgent-identification device, built it, shipped it and deployed it in Anbar province. They did this in 30 days, from Dec. 15 to Jan. 15. Compared to standard operating procedure for Iraq, this is a nanosecond.”

Major West, along with Spirit of America, a technology company called CDI, and with a small helping hand from me, fielded “The Snake Eater,” a biometric device that photographs, fingerprints and stores data about captured suspected insurgents, and then builds a networked picture on their family, history and activities.

The Snake Eater out of the box. Click photo to view.

Mr. Henniger aptly describes the process, as well as the need for the device, and I recommend heading over to the Opinion Journal to read the entire article.

On the night of January 20th, I accompanied Major West and his MTTs, and the Scouts platoon of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Brigade of the 1st Iraqi Army Division on the first patrol with “The Snake Eater.” There is a picture of the Snake Eater in action in the original posting.

I would like to add that not only will this device have a real impact on data gathering and storage, and creating a networked picture of the insurgency, there is also a real psychological effect of this tool on the populace. Several of the young men who were stopped and had their data gathered were clearly nervous about the device. They knew their fingerprint and picture were being taken and stored. Despite Anbar being the backwaters of Iraq, the people still understand technology and modern policing (I’ve seen CSI on TVs in homes during raids, for instance.). Major West informed me that immediately after the night patrol, “there was a buzz throughout the town” about the device. The Snake Eater may very well serve to deter those less committed to the jihad cause; the part time rent-an-insurgent might view the risk to great.

Also, on a final note, I want to thank Spirit of America for bringing me in on this project and for helping with the last two embeds in Iraq. It is an honor and priveledge to work with Jim Hake, Michele Redmend and the rest of the Spirit of America team. If you are looking for a way to help the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Horn of Africa, as well as help our fine troops in the field, Spirit of America is the place to go. You can view the project page for the Snake Eater here.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Tom Giboney says:

    I started the biometic identification system during the CPA & CJTF-7 days. Here’s the sorid story:
    Wolfowitz, DEPSECDEF, approved the immediate fielding of modern biometric identification systems similar to systems used by police to US Forces in Iraq, resourced by $400 million, in July 2004. The US Army Rapid Equipping Force (REF), specifically designed to by pass normal DoD procurement procedures to get existing technology to troops in the field, spent the first $100 million, and no equipment went to Iraq. The REF wanted to invent a unique DoD system and not used the time tested FBI Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS) and Commercial Off The Shelf equipment, used by even the smallest police force in the USA.
    The Troops in the field are buying the equipment with their own funds. DoD Biometrics is still studying the advantage of a biometrics identification system for security operations and steadily expanding their own bureaucracy three plus years after the DEPSECDEF decision to immediately implement the existing technology.
    The DoD Inspector General has been investigating the waste and fraud since August 2005. The DoD bureaucracy can’t even correct itself with peacetime procurement mentality.

  • There will be many who will jump to blame this problem on Bush and Rumsfeld but the source of the failure lies in Congress, past and present. The procurement and fielding rules at the Pentagon were not made up by incompetent bureaucrats but by competent individuals trying to meet the requirements for spending federal funds laid down by congressional legislation.
    A procurement process can be efficient, mistake free or fast: you must choose one. Congress has chosen mistake free and this is the result. Individuals in any organization respond to the incentives built into the organization and the people at DOD Biometrics are no different. I don’t know anyone who works for DOD Biometrics but I am extremely confident that the organization is filled with hard working, intelligent and patriotic Americans who are trying to get results through a system designed to slow them down.
    In order to rapidly deploy equipment to the field during a war we must establish something other than what Dan Henninger, in his Wall Street Journal article, called “the peacetime procurement process.” To do this Congress must allow a process whereby individuals can achieve successes and make mistakes without their careers being ruined or having to be called before a congressional committee and having to explain to the rolling television cameras why they fielded a Biometric system for the Department of Defense that could be used in the deserts of Iraq but was not tested for use in Europe, Alaska or Indonesia.
    Until we overcome that mentality we will have few successes.

  • David M says:

    Trackbacked by The Thunder Run – Web Reconnaissance for 02/08/2007
    A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention.

  • Spirit of America

    Read this. Then this. Then go and support Spirit of America….

  • BLACKFIVE says:

    The Snake Eater in Iraq

    It’s like S.C.M.O.D.S. (link is a .wav file) for Iraqis: First, someone you should know if you’re a regular here, Marine Major Owen West requests a criminal finger printing ID system for his Iraqi counterparts. Dan Henninger of the WSJ

  • Tincan Sailor says:

    Sounds about right!Just like when Homeland
    security was asked about checking for radiation
    in cargo containers they said it would take
    at least 5 years and around 8 Billion to do,
    mabey…Well Damned if Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory already has a unit working
    and the cost was under 8 thousand dollors…

  • remoteman says:

    Great read in today’s WSJ. Yes, the only way that happened was via private funds. My company has an order with the REF right now and while things are not lightning fast, they are certainly moving a whole lot quicker than via the traditional channels.
    The procurement process is slow, but some of the lethargy is due to system testing, safety certification, operator training and logistic support. Those things don’t happen out of thin air, particularly if you have a system that is going to fire a weapon, is more expensive (>$25K/unit) and requires training to operate it effectively.
    I sure hope the Snake Eater makes a difference. Again, great work making it happen. OpEd’s like today’s get a LOT of attention and put pressure on the procurement process to move faster and more effectively.

  • Paul says:

    I can remember buying and using AimPoint scopes, in the mid 70’s. Ditto wool British Commando sweaters, mountain boots and civilian sleeping bags and stoves. Naturally West Point, mastered degreed and lifer senior NCO’s all look horrified at anything but 1940’s technology. Since we were buying it, budget and Congress had nothing to say. It was just the usual Post Office with Guns mentality of a large, slow witted institution unfamiliar with the rapid civilian pace of innovation.
    Nice to see things don’t change much. Glad I am out.

  • Fran says:

    American ingenuity and know-how at its best! This is the attitude and spirit that has made us the best country on earth.

  • RJ says:

    Right now, somewhere in America, there might be a mother, father, wife, husband, brother, or sister who will come to realize somewhere down the road that this device ended up being used and saved a loved one’s life. That is a very good thing! At the same time, when we confront all those billions that seem to have disappeared into Iraq when given as “reconstructive aid” and view this in the time frame of occurence…let’s look at how long we may take to get to our troops those tools necessary to save our soldiers’ lives and kill the bad guys! I think we ought to let this volunteer military machine work its magic to the fullest against those wonderful people who belong to the “religion of peace” via a terrorist connection! I want to win this war as soon as possible with the least amount of lost blood on our side as can be created. This blog is one hell of a positive shot of energy in such a direction…thank you very much for sharing what you learn and experience out there!

  • Deploying the The Snake Eater in Khalidaya

    Courtesy of The Fourth Rail:
    A much needed biometric technology is brought to the battlefield in Khalidaya
    In the middle of January, I embedded with the joint U.S. Marine and U.S. Army Military Transition Team based in Khalidaya in Anbar province. T…

  • linuxguy says:

    The data is backed up when it is sent back to outpost headquarters. The data at HQ can be backed up by burning to CD/DVD or just backing up to an external USB hard drive. The DB issues are manageable – the army has a lot of smart folks and 1 TB hard drives are only a few hundred bucks now … I am going to throw these guys a few bucks to help them scale this system up.

  • There will be many who will jump to blame this problem on Bush and Rumsfeld but the source of the failure lies in Congress, past and present. The procurement and fielding rules at the Pentagon were not made up by incompetent bureaucrats but by competent individuals trying to meet the requirements for spending federal funds laid down by congressional legislation.
    Ironic, and in this situation sadly so. Government being stifled by its own regulations.
    Unfortunately, the congress is unlikely to learn and if anything will try to fix such situations by adding more regulatory complexity.
    Private enterprise often has to do environmental impact studies when building or starting off on projects. Congress & the rest of Govt should have to do something similar when they propose laws & regulations. Studies that estimate what it will cost enterprises in terms of money, effort, and other scarce resources.

  • An amazingly good start in Bagdhdad. I even like the name, “Operation Imposing the Law”.

    Per Mohammed at Iraq the Model, not only are attacks on coalition forces, Iraqi forces and civilians down 80% as the bad guys try to scope out the situation and adjust (so far poorly, as even the checkpoints are constantly on the move), and not only ha…


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