Revealing the Human Terrain System in Wikileaks’ Afghan War Diary

Posted on August 1, 2010 by


This is the fourth and final item in my mini-series on Human Terrain Teams as recorded in Wikileaks’ Afghan War Diary. The other articles were:

  1. Human Terrain Teams in Wikileaks’ Afghan War Diary: Raw Data
  2. Wikileaks’ Afghan War Diary: Problems to Note, More to Come on Human Terrain Teams
  3. Human Terrain System in Wikileaks’ Afghan War Diary: Searching for Evidence of the Positive

At the end of the second article, I wrote about the Human Terrain System getting its worst walloping yet as a result of these seemingly banal little records, and I added: “the [HTS] program managers should be going into serious damage control mode right now and preparing their own public statement, given evidence now in plain view right on this screen. They see it, and they know precisely what we mean.” Instead, they seem to be playing it cool, waiting to see who knows what they think they know, and who is willing to be the first to say it, instead of releasing any official statements. Perhaps current senior HTS insiders misunderstood the direction that debate would take, and decided to do this, which is to speak about civilian casualties and the impact on winning hearts and minds, but we are told that Major Robert Holbert, a member of the first Human Terrain Team to serve in Afghanistan, “couldn’t get Army clearance to answer questions Monday” –presumably that means questions beyond those he did in fact answer. It is unfortunate, because he is intimately familiar with what follows.


In Plain View: Getting the Intelligence From HTTs

When a Human Terrain Team (HTT) is mentioned in the records leaked to Wikileaks, how does the report writer know what he or she knows about the HTT? The answer seems simple enough, in a number of instances: a HTT is embedded with a larger military unit, the report writer indicates where the HTT is, what it is doing at a given moment, and what it plans to do. As for what HTTs themselves report, none of these records are HTT reports. Their reports go elsewhere and have an altogether different form–some have been uploaded to this site’s document box (here is one recent example), and you can see new ones being released at Public Intelligence. So when a record indicates what was recorded by a member or members of a HTT, how does the report writer know that, and who are these report writers?

In some instances, the writers of the reports providing HTT information are in military intelligence. They are either S-2, where an S-2 is a battalion or brigade intelligence staff officer (in an Army or Marine Corps battalion or regiment), or they are HUMINT (Human Intelligence) operatives, and you can read about HUMINT in the Counterinsurgency Field Manual and elsewhere.

Before going further, and to better understand the significance of this part, one must keep in mind here the many instances in the American Anthropological Association’s final report on HTS (by the Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the U.S. Security and Intelligence Communities) where it was explained that,

“the [HTS] program is housed within a DoD intelligence asset…it has reportedly been briefed as such an asset, and…a variety of circumstances of the work of Human Terrain Teams (HTTs) ‘on the ground’ in Iraq and Afghanistan create a significant likelihood that HTS data will in some way be used as part of military intelligence, advertently or inadvertently” (p. 4).

In a written response to the AAA’s queries, HTS’ Montgomery McFate stated:

“Protection of informant confidentiality is strongly emphasized because insurgent groups may target local Iraqis and Afghanis [sic] if proper measures for securing identity are not maintained. HTTs code their notes, store them securely, and sanitize their information to ensure anonymity and confidentiality.” (p. 33)

Even a recent job ad for a HTS Research Manager states about HTTs: “The teams will not engage in combat missions, nor does it [sic] collect intelligence.”

The AAA report also revealed the following, and I quote from it at length because it has now received further validation from these leaked reports, as we shall see:

The suggestion is that in practice the relationship between unclassified or open data collection and intelligence collection, especially in the field or downrange, is very close and that the two are perhaps hopelessly entangled. Or, as one observer put it, “Everyone talks to everyone else out here.” (p. 38)

Insofar as we are aware, currently there is no known mechanism for “feeding” raw data from HTS to the intelligence community [MF: this must now be revised, given what follows]. At the same time…on the ground the differences between HTS-type data collection and intelligence gathering are unclear within HTTs (p. 38)

While HTS spokespersons have consistently claimed that HTS personnel and data has not been used for the targeting of enemy populations, at least some statements by HTS social scientists support critics claims that HTS data can be utilized for such ends (p. 38)

the likelihood that HTTs can work closely with both military and civilian colleagues but also remain well clear of pressures – either direct or once or twice removed – to generate any cultural intelligence appears low. In fact the HTS public account dissociating it from any and all intelligence gathering runs contrary to a number of accounts from government insiders suggesting that the initial idea for some sort of human terrain program grew out of a growing recognition of the need to build up precisely that aspect of intelligence collection and analysis. (p. 39)

At least one deployed HTS social scientist was in fact physically located in the intelligence fusion center (p. 39)

That some of the records we read were written by intelligence personnel is one issue. More important is how they obtained the information “reported” by HTTs that we read in these reports.

In some cases, what we are reading is information “drawn” from actual, “raw” field notes, internally “leaked” by one or more HTT members to military intelligence. That is the mechanism by which raw data is fed to intelligence, that the AAA’s CEAUSSIC guessed about above. In case anyone is not following, we are dealing with one or more individuals in HTTs in Afghanistan who were intelligence analysts and who, without the knowledge or permission of fellow HTT members, copied their private field notes and put the information into the intelligence stream. This, I must emphasize, is not conjecture on my part, nor simply an “interpretation.” The evidence of this process has left its marks, as inscribed in various places throughout the leaked records provided by Wikileaks. HTS program managers, and their internal “leakers” to military intelligence, must have seen these reports for themselves by now, and see them in plain view, black on white. There is no denying them now, and focusing on John Stanton’s sourcing won’t cut it (and really, never did).

That such an internal spying program existed/exists, can only be with the knowledge and at least the tacit assent of both the higher ups in HTS–it is impossible that McFate and Fondacaro would not have known about it–and the military intelligence branches. This is a very grave violation of the confidentiality of HTT sources and their fieldnotes. It also suggests that the periodic noises that senior managers make about developing ethical guidelines, is meant as propaganda to assuage external critics, and to placate the consciences of its employees. Knowing this now, that this has happened and probably continues to happen, ought to tell those considering joining HTS that they are likely committing  career suicide, and that their best intentions and more noble aims will be subverted. A number of those who have been on the inside of course know about this already, and are aghast at what they are seeing online, but for some it may come as shocking news. The “line” between HTT and HUMINT is not just blurred, it is actively and surreptitiously breached.

This can have extremely grave ramifications, beyond the reputations and careers of HTT members, beyond the irreparably damaged public profile of HTS itself. As we heard already, while Col. Martin Schweitzer’s comments about HTTs helping to reduce lethal operations have received abundant air play in the media–what has apparently not been noticed (unless you watch that video) is the part at the end where he affirms that Special Operations Forces do rely on the products of HTTs. Apparently they can also rely on military intelligence partners to get them what they need, without HTT members having a chance to decide what information to convey and in what shape.

That the leaders of the Human Terrain System sit by silently, as these Wikileaks records unfold in public view, demonstrates a remarkably glacial indifference and stony demeanor.

Identifying Sympathies for the Enemy, Battlefield Interrogations, and HUMINT

On Haqqani’s Trail

“The Haqqani network may be a possible link between this town and Pakistan” was stated in a 31 July 2007 extract from HTT fieldnotes about the village of Kandaw Kalay in the Shwak District. Some will contend this is not targeting: targeting would require the name of the person, his location at a given time, how many civilians are around him, etc. It is targeting an entire village however, as a place of interest for Special Ops. In October of last year, that exact village was targeted in a raid (and one should note that the Wikileaks records did not help us to find that information). (I say “village” with some caution–it is hard to see what that place is from the record’s map location).

For U.S. forces operating in Regional Command East (RC East), tracking Haqqani and his network (noted as HQN in the records) is an obvious matter of urgent interest. Between 2006 and 2008, the Wikileaks records show at least four IED detonations targeting supply trucks in the Shwak District. On 31 August 2007 the report is that the HTT was able to gather the following information: “Hakani has a great influence in their area.” On 06 September 2007, in what is wrongly/misleadingly titled a “HTT Report,” but is instead another instance of lifting HTT members’ fieldnotes and putting them into the hands of intelligence, we read:

“ACM [anti-coalition militia] influence in Gerda Serai: Haqqani himself belongs to the Sultan Khel Tribe. Some of Haqqanis sons and many of his extended relatives are still reside in Gerda Serai. Gerda Serai is without a doubt, a Haqqani network stronghold. The Parangi tribe is also subject to strong Taliban influence, although the Parangi are not believed to share the Talibans ideology. They simply provide shelter and material support. Once OPN Khyber ends, it is believed that HQN and Taliban forces will return to the district in force.”

Channeling Information to Collection Management

Information/intel flow from maneuver unit to CA/PRT to CMA” reads a line from a 25 August 2007 report, referring to a full team consisting of doctors, medics, a veterinarian, linguists, and a HTT, moving with members of Combined Joint Task Force 82 (CJTF-82) and a CMA team (“collection management”). Collection management is defined in the joint intelligence doctrine manual as “the process of converting intelligence requirements into collection requirements, establishing, tasking or coordinating with appropriate collection sources or agencies, monitoring results and retasking, as required” (source1, and see the US Air Force Intelligence Targeting Guide).

Locating Suicide Bombers

On 14 June 2008, a record dealing with a demonstration by Afghans in Zormat, a demonstration that is clearly causing some anxiety for U.S. forces, although we are not told what was the object of the demonstration, just that it was “non-hostile” (though that did not stop an Afghan policeman from killing a demonstrator and wounding five others). In what might have escalated into significant action, a HTT embedded with Task Force Panther is said to have “received reports of possible suicide bombers” around the area of a demonstration taking place in the bazaar.

Battlefield Interrogations

If HTTs are supposed to conduct battlefield interrogations, it’s not in their job descriptions. One wonders what training they receive for what is essentially an intelligence function, with very direct and immediate consequences for those interviewed. On 03 October 2007, Task Force Eagle (C Company) assisted members of the Afghan National Army, and their American mentors in an Embedded Training Team, in a firefight with “anti-coalition militia” that resulted in five wounded ANA troops, and one wounded ETT member. Three ANA trucks, and one ETT armoured vehicle were badly damaged. However, “later in the day, two fighting aged males showed up at FOB Orgun E with gun shot wounds.” They claimed they had been ambushed by the ANA, and apparently claimed to be non-combatants. The suspicious thing about their story is that members of the ETT and the ANA forces “reported there were no civilians at the ambush location.” These two individuals were treated for their wounds, and then escorted to Forward Operating Base Salerno for additional treatment.

What is important to note that is that an intelligence unit, “the Fury S-2 shop,” had the two Afghans interviewed by a HTT.

On 12 August 2009, a HTT found itself under direct fire, alongside combat troops of the 3-71 Cavalry Regiment “Titans” 10th Mountain Division, whose home base is in Fort Drum, New York. Fire came from a fortification that the record writer referred to as a “qalat.” Two F-16s were called in for an airstrike—which does not seem to have occurred. Two civilians, mistaken for enemy combatants, were wounded. One U.S. soldier was also wounded. There were no enemy casualties. We read: “Battle X reports 3/B is having HTT question 15 mams (MF: women?) that were in close vic (MF: vicinity) to burning qalat they took fire from. Also questioning 30-40 males in the village.” A human intelligence (HUMINT) collection team (HCT) was also present and conducting interviews. In fact, the report writes of the HTT and HCT as covering the exact same ground: interviewing the same people, in the same number.

A Revised Job Advertisement for HTS

Taking into account what we now know about the work of Human Terrain Teams, actual job ads for HTS ought to be drastically revised, in the interest of transparency, and to minimize the frequent conflicts in the consciences of their employees that have led many to walk out on the program, and quite a few to act as whistle blowers in their own right. Actual job ads have been revised, since HTS now uses a tool designed for the intelligence community, the TIGR (tactical ground reporting) unit made by Ascend Intelligence, which we previously talked about here. More needs to be said about how fieldnotes are not private and confidential, leaks are built into the program, the work of HTTs is destined for intelligence collectors, analysts, and Special Ops, and that they will be required to do battlefield interrogations, and occasionally expose themselves to grave bodily harm.

A Final Note?

Having said all of this, and speaking only for myself, I really cannot imagine how I would have anything further to write about the Human Terrain System, unless certain individuals decide to come out and speak out in public. John Stanton is likely to have more news reports, and more leaks, and those will get priority placement on this site, more than anything else I might have written. I had planned a few more posts, and have since dumped them: they were itsy-bitsy pieces of what now almost appear to be random trivia, not sewn together to amount to an explanatory and critical narrative as above, and adding little more than mass. As far as I am concerned, this is the turning point, just the beginning, as the head of the snake begins to devour its tail.

While it is true that this is largely “thanks” to Wikileaks and their source(s), there is also a great deal about this release that should provoke intense outrage, for having essentially produced a gigantic hit list, for which I voluntarily but unknowingly paid a sum. The “do no harm” principle has been utterly ignored by Wikileaks. I have much more to say about Wikileaks, not likely to appear on this site however. In the meantime, the only other anthropology blog to have discussed the Wikileaks records (that I know about), is Savage Minds, with another very good article by Zoe Wool at the University of Toronto–see: Raw and Cooked Facts in Wikileaks’ “Afghan War Diaries, 2004-2010.”

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