The General Who Loved Blimps Too Much
He was the Air Force’s spy chief. Then he went straight to a firm selling spy gear. Now he’s in trouble.
The U.S. Air Force’s influential former intelligence chief has agreed to pay a $125,000 settlement to the Justice Department. At issue: a drone blimp the size of a football field, designed to spy on an entire town in a single pass.
The federal government launched an investigation into whether retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula —who at the time was the chief executive officer for a defense startup called MAV6—violated federal laws that prohibit conflicts of interest. Before he left the Pentagon, Deptula had enormous sway over the U.S. military’s aerial surveillance programs. And Blue Devil Block II, as MAV6’s giant spy blimp was known, was one hell of an aerial surveillance effort. The Justice Department accused him of trading on his old connections to get the blimp off the ground, if you’ll forgive the pun.
“From June 2011 to July 2012, while serving as CEO of Mav6, Deptula engaged in communications or appearances on behalf of Mav6 before United States’ officers regarding a U.S. military defense program known as Blue Devil Block II,” reads a statement released by the Justice Department, referring to the giant spy blimp project. “[Blue Devil II is a] program in which the United States contends Deptula participated personally and substantially while he was with the Air Force.”
Deptula agreed to pay a settlement totaling $125,000, but did not admit any liability. “The civil penalty claims settled by Deptula and the United States are allegations only; there has been no determination of civil liability,” the Justice Department statement reads.
The central issue in the legal case was Deptula’s enthusiastic advocacy on behalf of Mav6’s Blue Devil II $211 million surveillance blimp. Like many projects that popped up during the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Blue Devil II was designed to collect as much aerial surveillance as possible.
Deptula—and other backers of the project—believed that only a massive, slow-moving robotic airship floating at 20,000 feet had the sheer endurance and lifting capacity to house the myriad spy cameras, ground surveillance radars, and signals intelligence gathering antennas needed to spy on huge swaths of land for days at a time. The Blue Devil II also was designed to house the equivalent of a supercomputer on board to process all that data it gathered into usable intelligence without a lot of human intervention.
The hope was that the system could overcome one of the bottlenecks that still bedevil the Air Force’s drone fleet over Iraq and Syria: manpower. There just are not enough pilots, sensor operators, and—most importantly—intelligence analysts for the Air Force to maintain its current pace of operations.
But like many projects of that era, Blue Devil II was part of a Pentagon fad. As the U.S. military started to pack up to leave, the Defense Department quickly tired of the novelty of blimps. Blue Devil II and two other blimp projects like it—including the Army’s LEMV and Navy MZ-3A—were cast aside in favor of weapons that could fight the Russians and Chinese, like the new Long Range Strike Bomber program.
But while the Pentagon’s affinity for blimps has faded, the legal cases from that era continue. Last year, Aviation Week and Space Technology reported that the Air Force is barring Deptula from conducting business with the U.S. government until February 2016 as punishment over the conflict of interest issue. As a result, neither Deptula nor his consulting company may work for the U.S. government; but it does not impact his work with the Air Force Association—which is a private quasi-lobbying organization that advocates for the service.
According to the Aviation Week report, Air Force deputy general counsel Randy Grandon slammed Deptula for “particularly egregious” breaches of the Air Force’s post-employment rules.
It wasn't Deptula's only controversy. According to the retired general, he discovered "three files marked as classified, and reported the material to appropriate security officials as not belonging there," as he noted in a March 2 letter to The Daily Beast. After Deptula "turned the computer over to appropriate security officials, an investigation later discovered that an Air Force information technology specialist inadvertently transferred potentially classified material to [Deptula's] personal computer."
According to the Aviation Week report, Deptula had 125 classified documents—10 labeled secret, 14 top secret, and one with the especially sensitive Secret, Compartmented Information label—on that laptop. The Air Force accepted Deptula’s explanation that he didn’t know the classified documents were on his computer, according to Aviation Week.
“Lt. General David A. Deptula (Ret) is pleased to have resolved this matter with the U.S. Department of Justice,” wrote attorney David Schertler in an emailed statement. “As the Department states in its press release, the settlement agreement is not an admission of any liability on the part of Lt. Gen. Deptula, but resolves the outstanding issues between Lt. Gen. Deptula and the Department. Lt. Gen. Deptula served his country with honor and distinction for over 30 years and continues to do so today.”
While that may be true, Deptula got off fairly lightly. The Obama administration has not been forgiving of officials caught mishandling classified documents. According to USA Today, federal prosecutors are recommending criminal charges against former U.S. Central Command boss Gen. David Petraeus for sharing classified documents with his biographer and mistress Paula Broadwell. So far, however: no fines.
UPDATE 4/16/15: This story has been corrected throughout, to more accurately reflect the sort of payment Deptula made; the nature of the Justice Department investigation into his activities; and how he says classified material got onto his personal laptop.