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Republicans blast Air Force nominee’s proposal to surveil troops

Ravi Chaudhary. (Staff Sgt. Christopher Freeman/U.S. Army/TNS)
February 19, 2022

Last year, Ravi Chaudhary called on the military to use artificial intelligence to track the online activity of service members in an effort to root out extremists. On Thursday, it came back to haunt the nominee for a top Air Force post.

Chaudhary is President Joe Biden’s pick to serve as the assistant secretary of the Air Force for energy, installations and environment, having previously served at the Federal Aviation Administration during the Trump administration. But he faced a hostile crowd of Republicans at his Senate Armed Services Committee nomination hearing.

The GOP senators focused their questioning on the Air Force veteran’s July 2021 op-ed in Foreign Policy News reflecting on how the military should respond to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol, arguing that Chaudhary’s proposal to surveil service members would violate due process and invade their privacy.

Between 10 and 20% of those charged in the Jan. 6 riot were military members or veterans, according to conflicting media accounts. Responding to that evidence, Chaudhary in his article suggested using artificial intelligence as a way to monitor the communications of service members and counter extremism in the armed forces. He said an algorithm could flag “toxic behaviors” for commanders to review.

He pointed to other examples of extremist violence in the ranks, including a 2019 shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida in which an aviation student shot three people to death and injured eight, as well as multiple murders at Fort Hood in Texas. In 2009, an Army major there shot 13 people to death and injured 30, while two years ago Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén was beaten to death with a hammer by a fellow soldier.

Nonetheless, panel Republicans objected to Chaudhary’s plans, arguing that such surveillance would invade privacy and violate due process.

“I think it’s a really horrible idea,” said ranking member James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma.

Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn asked if Chaudhary would use AI or machine learning to monitor military personnel’s electronic footprint.

Florida’s Rick Scott asked Chaudhary if he would require service members to download an app on their phones that would monitor them and likened Chaudhary’s suggestion of using artificial intelligence to track communications to China’s use of technology to track and imprison Uyghur Muslims.

Missouri’s Josh Hawley, who has opposed almost all of Biden’s nominees for executive branch positions and federal judgeships, also joined in, saying he was “astounded” that Chaudhary had been nominated in light of his article and that he would not support his nomination.

Chaudhary responded by explaining that the intent of his article was to engage in the public discussion on extremism after Jan. 6 and that he did not want to implement the proposal.

“It fell short, and I regret that,” he said. “The men and women who serve — the vast majority of the men and women who serve — serve with honor, integrity and excellence, and I believe that the constitutional rights of our men and women who serve should be protected, period.”

Chaudhary appeared before the committee alongside three other nominees: Franklin Parker to be assistant secretary of the Navy for manpower and reserve affairs; Agnes Schaefer to be assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs; and Frank Calvelli to be assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration.

If confirmed, Calvelli would be the first assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration since the creation of the Space Force in December 2019.

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