To honor an employee's son who was badly wounded in Iraq, IBM Corp. (IBM) plans to give the U.S. military $45 million worth of Arabic-English translation technology that 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 had been hidden in the wall, and when it went off, it wounded several soldiers. Ecker eventually lost both legs below the knee.
Ecker's father, an IBM mainframe sales specialist in East Longmeadow, Mass., shared the story of his son's ordeal with co-workers, and 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, Palmisano had heard from several IBM employees who have returned from active duty in Iraq that a shortage of Arabic translators has severely hampered 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 MASTOR software and 1,000 devices equipped with it, plus training and technical support.
"Hopefully this will be helpful to our efforts," he wrote.
Separately, Anne Altman, who oversees IBM's federal sales in Washington, reached out to 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 Department of Defense.
"Part of the evaluation is to determine a proper legal way for acceptance," he wrote in an e-mail.
Indeed, it is very rare for a large defense contractor like IBM, which does roughly $3 billion worth of federal business every year, to give the government a freebie.
It is also worth noting that MASTOR has been undergoing testing by the Pentagon's Joint Forces Command, in addition to a rival two-way translation technology known as 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 last 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 is widely used on patrols or other tense situations.
IBM's Altman said she hoped IBM's gift would accelerate the timeframe, and said other vendors should consider "similar donations." An SRI spokeswoman declined to comment.
But 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. "There's no question that over time, they'll be looking to procure others."
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. It would seem to me that this will give troops more capabilities sooner. That's a hard argument to top. Lord knows they need all the help they can get right now."
Lt. Jeral Dorsey, a spokesman for the Joint Forces Command, said Monday that Army officers are reviewing the results of the IraqComm and MASTOR tests, and the Pentagon is planning to test similar technology from several other developers.
No matter how the donation plays out, it has already delighted the Eckers. Ecker Jr., who has been recuperating in Walter Reed Medical Center since Feb. 28, 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."