Pentagon offered Arabic software
To honor an employee's son badly wounded in Iraq, IBM plans to give the U.S. military $45 million worth of Arabic-English translation technology...
The Associated Press
To honor an employee's son badly wounded in Iraq, IBM plans to give the U.S. military $45 million worth of Arabic-English translation technology the Pentagon had been testing for possible purchase.
The offer, made from the highest reaches of the company directly to President Bush, is so unusual that Defense Department and IBM lawyers have been scouring federal laws to make sure the government can accept the donation.
The story begins one night in late February, when Army Sgt. Mark Ecker Jr., 21, on his second tour in Iraq, was on patrol in Ramadi.
Preparing to raid a house, Ecker's unit lined up along a side of the building. But an explosive device hidden in the wall went off, wounding several soldiers. Ecker eventually lost both legs below the knee.
His father, an IBM mainframe sales specialist in East Longmeadow, Mass., shared the story of his son's ordeal with co-workers. Word spread through the company. Eventually, it reached Chairman and CEO Samuel Palmisano.
IBM would not make Palmisano available for comment. But according to other IBM executives, he had heard from several IBM employees who returned from active duty in Iraq that a shortage of Arabic translators has hurt U.S. forces' efforts to communicate.
With that and Ecker's experience in mind, Palmisano called and wrote Bush, offering to make IBM's Multilingual Automatic Speech Translator software, known as MASTOR, "immediately available for use by our forces in Iraq."
Palmisano offered 10,000 copies of the software and 1,000 devices equipped with it, plus training and tech support.
"Hopefully this will be helpful to our efforts," he wrote.
Separately, Anne Altman, who oversees IBM's federal sales in Washington, reached Adm. Edmund Giambastiani, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to reiterate the offer and get guidance on how to make it happen.
Giambastiani told IBM he appreciated the donation, although according to his spokesman, Lt. Col. Gary Tallman, "the offer is under evaluation right now" and "does not constitute acceptance" by the Defense Department.
"Part of the evaluation is to determine a proper legal way for acceptance," he wrote in an e-mail.
It is very rare for a large defense contractor such as IBM, which does roughly $3 billion worth of federal business every year, to give the government a freebie.
MASTOR has been undergoing testing by the Pentagon's Joint Forces Command, in addition to a rival two-way translation technology known as IraqComm from nonprofit SRI International.
Both systems take English or Arabic that is spoken into a computer microphone, translate it into the other language and utter it through the machine's speakers.
Joint Forces Command told The Associated Press in October that tests on IraqComm and MASTOR so far had been in quiet offices rather than noisy war-zone settings, and that it might be 2009 before the technology was widely used on patrols or other tense situations.
Altman said she hoped IBM's gift would speed the timeframe and said other vendors should consider "similar donations."
An SRI spokeswoman declined to comment.
Altman added that she did not expect IBM's offer to end up cutting out SRI or any other potential providers. "The government never gets themselves in a position where there's only one provider of a capability," she said.
John Pike, a military analyst with GlobalSecurity.org, said he had never heard of such a donation and questioned whether it might have the effect, unintended or not, of making MASTOR a favored choice for future projects because of the "large installed base and large user community."
However, he added: "I would have a hard time being overly critical of anything that would accelerate the war effort."
No matter how the donation plays out, it has already delighted the Eckers. Ecker Jr., recuperating at Walter Reed Medical Center, also got a visit from Bush on Friday as the president toured the hospital.
"A translator wouldn't have helped in my situation — we were sneaking around the middle of the night, and it was just one of those things," Ecker Jr. said. But overall, he added: "communicating with the locals is difficult. This technology that IBM is going to offer is really going to help."
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