‘I Could Solve Most of Your Problems’: Eric Schmidt’s Pentagon Offensive
The former Google C.E.O. has reinvented himself as the prime liaison between Silicon Valley and the military-industrial complex.
By Kate Conger and
In July 2016, Raymond Thomas, a four-star general and head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, hosted a guest: Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google.
After the visit, as they rode in a Chevy Suburban toward an airport, the conversation turned to a form of artificial intelligence.
“You absolutely suck at machine learning,” Mr. Schmidt told General Thomas, the officer recalled. “If I got under your tent for a day, I could solve most of your problems.” General Thomas said he was so offended that he wanted to throw Mr. Schmidt out of the car, but refrained.
Mr. Schmidt now sits on two government advisory boards aimed at jump starting technological innovation at the Defense Department. His confidants include former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and ex-Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work. And through his own venture capital firm and a $13 billion fortune, Mr. Schmidt has invested millions of dollars into more than half a dozen defense start-ups.
In an interview, Mr. Schmidt — by turns thoughtful, pedagogical and hubristic — said he had embarked on an effort to modernize the U.S. military because it was “stuck in software in the 1980s.”
He portrayed himself as a successful technologist who did not believe in retirement and who owed a debt to the countryfor his wealth — and who now had time and insight to solve one of America’s hardest problems. The goal, he said, “should be to have as many software companies to supply software of many, many different kinds: military, H.R. systems, email systems, things which involve military intelligence, weapons systems and what have you.”
Mr. Schmidt is pressing forward with a Silicon Valley worldview where advances in software and A.I. are the keys to figuring out almost any issue. While that philosophy has led to social networks that spread disinformation and other unintended consequences, Mr. Schmidt said he was convinced that applying new and relatively untested technology to complex situations — including deadly ones — would make service members more efficient and bolster the United States in its competition with China.
His techno-solutionism is complicated by his ties to Google. Though Mr. Schmidt left the company’s board last June and has no official operating role, he holds $5.3 billion in shares of Google’s parent, Alphabet. He also remains on the payroll as an adviser, earning a $1 annual salary, with two assistants stationed at Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters.
That has led to allegations that Mr. Schmidt is putting Google’s financial interests ahead of other considerations in his defense work. Late last year, a federal court ordered a congressional advisory committee he leads to turn over records that could shed light on whether Mr. Schmidt had advocated his business interests while heading the group.
Mr. Schmidt said he had followed rules to avoid conflicts. “Everybody is rule-bound at the Pentagon, and we are too,” he said.
Google and the Defense Department declined to comment on Mr. Schmidt’s work.
Even without those complications, shifting the military’s path is no simple task. While Mr. Schmidt has helped generate reports and recommendations about technology for the Pentagon, few have been adopted.
“I’m sure he’ll be frustrated,” said Representative Mac Thornberry, a Republican of Texas who nominated Mr. Schmidt in 2018 to an advisory committee on A.I. “Unlike the private sector, you can’t just snap your fingers and make it happen.”
But he said he had little intention of backing down. “The way to understand the military is that the soldiers spend a great deal of time looking at screens. And human vision is not as good as computer vision,” he said. “It’s insane that you have people going to service academies, and we spend an enormous amount of training, training these people, and we put them in essentially monotonous work.”
Mr. Schmidt’s first brush with the military came in 1976, while he was in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. There, he focused on research on distributed computing, funded by money from Darpa, a research arm of the Defense Department.
The work catapulted Mr. Schmidt into his technology career. After completing his graduate studies in computer science, he worked at various tech companies for more than two decades, including the networking software maker Novell. In 2001, Google appointed him chief executive.
The search engine company was then in its infancy. Its 20-something founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, were fresh out of a Stanford University doctorate program and had little business experience. Mr. Schmidt was hired to help guide them, providing “adult supervision,” which he did — and then some.
Mr. Schmidt took Google public in 2004 and built it into a behemoth, diversifying into smartphones, cloud computing and self-driving cars. The success turned him into a business celebrity. In 2009, he served as a tech adviser to the Obama administration.
In 2011, with Google worth nearly $400 billion, the company announced Mr. Page was ready to resume the C.E.O. reins. Mr. Schmidt became executive chairman.
In that role, Mr. Schmidt took on new projects, many of which brought him to Washington. In 2012, he participated in classified briefings on cybersecurity with Pentagon officials as part of the Enduring Security Framework program. In 2015, he attended a seminar on the banks of the Potomac River, hosted by then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter, on the use of technology inside the government.
“It was all interesting to me,” Mr. Schmidt said. “I didn’t really know much about it.”
He also traveled to North Korea, Afghanistan and Libya while writing a book about technology and diplomacy, and dabbled in politics, lending technical support to Hillary Clinton in the run-up to her 2016 presidential campaign.
His venture capital fund, Innovation Endeavors, was active too. It invested in start-ups like Planet Labs, which operates satellites and sells the imagery to defense and intelligence agencies, and Team8, a cybersecurity company founded by former Israeli intelligence members.
At the 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Mr. Carter asked Mr. Schmidt to meet. He had a proposal: Could Mr. Schmidt lead the Defense Innovation Board, a civilian advisory group tasked with bringing new technology to the Pentagon?
“We were in one of these dumpy hotels, and there he is with his small entourage walking in, and he basically said to me, ‘This is what I want to do. You’d be the perfect person to be chairman,’” Mr. Schmidt said.
Mr. Schmidt said he turned down the role because he was busy and had no military background. But Mr. Carter argued that Mr. Schmidt’s tech expertise was needed, as the U.S. military — which had once been a center of innovation — was falling behind companies like Google and Facebook in software and A.I.
Mr. Schmidt ultimately agreed. (Mr. Carter did not respond to requests for comment.)
As head of the Defense Innovation Board, Mr. Schmidt began touring military bases, aircraft carriers and plutonium strongholds. The trips, which took Mr. Schmidt to about 100 bases in places like Fayetteville, N.C., and Osan, South Korea, were a distinct break from his well-heeled life in Silicon Valley.
“You want to see these things,” Mr. Schmidt said. “I got the nuclear missile tour. Things that are hard. I got a tour of Cheyenne Mountain so I could understand what their reality was.”
One of the first trips was to Tampa to visit General Thomas, who is known as Tony, where Mr. Schmidt saw maps and live video feeds displayed on massive screens. “Eric’s observation was that a huge part of what the military does is it sits and watches,” said Josh Marcuse, the then executive director of the Defense Innovation Board who was on the trip.
The visits made tangible what Mr. Carter had told Mr. Schmidt about how the military was lagging in technology. Mr. Schmidt soon made suggestions to change that.
Some of his ideas were impractical. Eric Rosenbach, then the chief of staff to Mr. Carter, recalled Mr. Schmidt once telling him that the Pentagon would be better off if it hired no one but engineers for a year.
Others were useful. At an Air Force facility in Qatar in 2016, Mr. Schmidt visited officers who scheduled flight paths for the tankers that refueled planes. They used a white board and dry-erase markers to set the schedule, taking eight hours to complete the task.
Mr. Schmidt said he recalled thinking, “Really? This is how you run the air war?” Afterward, he and others at the Defense Department worked with the tech company Pivotal to ship software to the officers.
On another trip to a military base in South Korea in 2017, an intelligence analyst complained to Mr. Schmidt that the software he used to review surveillance videos from North Korea was clunky.
“Let me guess,” Mr. Schmidt said, according to a Defense Department aide who traveled with him. “You don’t have the flexibility to change that.”
At Google, Mr. Schmidt’s influence waned as new leaders — such as Sundar Pichai, now Alphabet’s chief executive, and Ruth Porat, its chief financial officer — rose. Google also faced questions when the #MeToo era began in 2017 about Mr. Schmidt’s conduct as C.E.O. Mr. Schmidt, who is married, had openly had extramarital relationships when he ran the company.
In December 2017, Mr. Schmidt stepped down as Google’s chairman but remained on the board. He said he was seeking a new chapter.
“If I stayed as chairman, then next year would have been the same as the previous year, and I wanted a change of emphasis,” said Mr. Schmidt. “As chairman of Google, what I did is I ran around and gave speeches, and went to Brussels and all the things that Google still does today. It’s much better to work on these new things for me.”
Google declined to comment on Mr. Schmidt’s departure as chairman.
By then, Mr. Schmidt’s ties to Google had caused problems in his defense work. In 2016, Roma Laster, a Defense Department employee, filed a complaint at the agency raising concerns about Mr. Schmidt and conflicts of interest, Mr. Marcuse said.
In the complaint, earlier reported by ProPublica, Ms. Laster, who worked with the Defense Innovation Board, said Mr. Schmidt had asked a service member what cloud computing services their unit used and whether they had considered alternatives. She said Mr. Schmidt faced a conflict of interest because he worked for Google, which also provides cloud services.
Mr. Marcuse, who now works at Google, said Mr. Schmidt was “scrupulous and diligent” in avoiding conflicts. Mr. Schmidt said he followed the rules forbidding conflicts of interest. Ms. Laster did not respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Schmidt soon got caught up in another issue between Google and the military. Google had signed a contract in 2017 to help the Pentagon build systems to automatically analyze drone footage to identify particular objects like buildings, vehicles and people.
Mr. Schmidt was a proponent of the effort, called Project Maven. He said he encouraged the Pentagon to pursue it and testified in Congress about the project’s merits, but was not involved in the agency’s selection of Google.
But the effort blew up in 2018 when Google employees protested and said they did not want their work to lead to lethal strikes. More than 3,000 workers signed a letter to Mr. Pichai, saying the contract would undermine the public’s trust in the company.
In June 2018, Google said it would not renew the Maven contract; it later promised to no longer work on weapons systems at all.
It was a black eye for Mr. Schmidt. Military officials, who said Project Maven was not being used for lethal missions, condemned Google for abandoning the contract. Google employees also criticized Mr. Schmidt’s ties to the Pentagon.
“He has very different goals and values than the engineers at his company,” said Jack Poulson, a Google employee who protested Mr. Schmidt’s military work and who has since left the company.
Mr. Schmidt said he sidestepped discussions about Project Maven because of conflict-of-interest rules, but wished he could have weighed in. “I would have certainly had an opinion,” he said.
Last April, Mr. Schmidt announced he planned to leave Google’s board. He had helped create an A.I. center backed by the Pentagon in 2018 and had also become co-chair of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, a new group advising Congress on developing A.I. for defense.
A month after leaving Google, Mr. Schmidt invested in Rebellion Defense, a software start-up founded by former Defense Department employees that analyzes video gathered via drone. His venture firm later put more money into the company, and Mr. Schmidt joined its board.
The investment led to more trouble. The Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit privacy and civil liberties group, sued the A.I. commission last September for failing to turn over records. EPIC said the group was stacked with industry executives like Mr. Schmidt and others from Microsoft, Amazon and Oracle, who could potentially sway the government in favor of their companies’ interests.
Mr. Schmidt was under scrutiny because of Rebellion Defense and how he could push the government to use the start-up’s services, EPIC said.
“We don’t have any public disclosure about what information Eric has provided to the commission about his business interests,” said John Davisson, an attorney at EPIC.
In December, a district court ruled the A.I. commission must disclose the records requested by EPIC. The commission has released hundreds of pages of documents, most of which do not involve Mr. Schmidt or his businesses. EPIC said more records are set to be released.
Chris Lynch, the chief executive of Rebellion Defense, said Mr. Schmidt advised the company solely on hiring and growth. Mr. Schmidt said he did not advocate for the Defense Department to buy technology from the start-up.
He has continued plowing ahead. In November, he unveiled a $1 billion commitment through Schmidt Futures, the philanthropic firm that he runs with his wife, Wendy, to fund education for those who want to work in public service.
“People listen to me, either because I’m right, or because I’m from Google in the past, or they knew me, or because I can bring money to the table,” he said. “I don’t care, as long as I have a positive impact.”