“The Rendez-Vous between Fear and Opportunity”: David H. Price (notes and comments)

Putting some red herrings to rest, in a pan with hot oil

Re-reading some of David Price’s online articles about the militarization of social science research has been rewarding for the important insights and questions he raises (see Counterpunch 2005/05/12, 2005/05/22, 2008/06/24). Anyone who doubts that there is a “national security state” at work in bending social science to meet imperial objectives is of course free to dispute the details of the information provided by Price, and there have been a few, slim attempts. Price takes us through various programs, including the National Security Education Program (NSEP), the Intelligence Community Scholars Program (ICSP), the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program (PRISP), the Minerva Consortia, and of course this builds on discussions of the Human Terrain System (HTS). It is difficult to get a sense from Price’s articles about the total amount of money that has been dedicated to all of these programs, together, but my own rough estimate based on the figures provided is that it is not less than $150 million US.

That is quite a few programs and a good sum of funds, at a relatively early stage in some of these programs, added to grudging acceptance by various professional bodies, and more enthusiastic support from university presidents, in a climate where “national security” is pumped up as something that all Americans (and even Canadians) need to be worried about. The notion that anthropologists and other social scientists who wish to embed themselves in counterinsurgency or otherwise aid the military are somehow being stopped from joining by critics of these programs is simply false. Nobody is stopping them, they are being funded to the hilt, and getting a lot of job opportunities. So we can at least dismiss this first red herring.

However, why was the red herring raised to begin with? Like many other red herrings, this one can be useful for distracting and deflecting attention. The objective is to target the critics as the problem, as the oppressor, who somehow have the power to persecute their militarist colleagues, when the militarists are getting the funding and institutional support. The only real aim of such discourse is to try to mute dissent and criticism. That’s all. The militarists are doing what they want to do already, and get all the support that counts, but they would prefer to do so either with silence or applause from the audience. If there is one lesson for all parties to be learned from this clash, a clash that will likely become a defining feature of academic social science for many years to come, is that nobody will get everything they want (and some of us get close to nothing we want).

The second red herring has to do with what we see on some of these surrounding blog discussions, the idea that criticism is problematic because it is not objective and scientific, it is does not do enough to waffle itself into an obscure middling position where it could remain as good as silent for being incomprehensible and ambiguous. One argument has thus involved caricaturing criticism of academic support for the military and intelligence arms of the state as being “rhetorical,” while those upholding such engagement do so instead as a result of their embrace/ownership of “reasoned discourse.” The appeal to ownership of reasoned discourse, while tossing every imaginable definition of “rhetoric” at one’s critics (in the hope that one will stick), is of course a rhetorical strategy in itself. That is why the more productive strategy is not to rehash antiquated notions of rhetoric and reason, but to examine these discussions as producing and reinforcing particular discourses.

For example, the discursive strategy of claiming to be reasonable, yet unleashing the dogs of war. One of the best groups of writers to understand this, and to spoof this logic, was of course Monty Python:

It’s all very well to laugh at the Military, but, when one considers the meaning of life, it is a struggle between alternative viewpoints of life itself, and without the ability to defend one’s own viewpoint against other perhaps more aggressive ideologies, then reasonableness and moderation could, quite simply, disappear.

What remains unanswered, because it is not meant to be answered, is: How should one understand the retreat to intellectual ambivalence and rhetorical obscurantism, in the face of documented violations of human rights of the most severe kind, as a result of an unprovoked invasion and a war of occupation?

What I want to draw attention to below is in line with the way Price begins one of his articles, with a quote from Robertson Davies: “In Paracelsus’s time the energy of universities resided in the conflict between humanism and theology; the energy of the modern university lives in the love-affair between government and science, and sometimes the two are so close it makes you shudder.”

What follows is for the scrapbook of this blog, a selection of what I think are key quotes from some of Price’s articles. The headings are mine.


June 24, 2008
Inside the Minerva Consortium: Social Science in Harness

Sovietizing the social sciences

The demands of conforming scientific knowledge with the ideological positions of a powerful state stunted the development of Soviet biology for decades…American social science faces new forms of ideologically controlled funding that stand to transform our universities’ production of knowledge in ways reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s ideological control over scientific interpretations…

…the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program, the National Security Education Program, Intelligence Community Scholars Program…leave our universities increasingly ready to produce knowledge and scholars aligned with the ideological assumptions of the Defense Department.

…ideological narrowness of the Defense Department’s approach to and presuppositions of these topics [in the Minerva program] will necessarily warp project outcomes…

Broken institutions can’t repair themselves, and agencies bound to neo-imperial desires of occupation and subjugation will not be receptive to scholarly work seeking to correct this national blunder.

Because of the narrowness of scope and assumptions about the causes of problems facing America, Gates’ Minerva plan will harm America’s strategic capabilities as it will inevitably fund scholars willing to think in the narrow ways already acceptable to the Defense Department.

Remembering that anthropology was and is imperial

In…anthropology, there is an overwhelming disciplinary amnesia of the extent to which research has been directed by the Pentagon and intelligence agencies in the past….there has been a broad spectrum of overt and covert control over this funding control, with the full range running from the rampant secret directing of funding of unwitting scholars doing research of interest to the CIA and others, to the open, massive funding of a full spectrum of social science and language projects through agencies like the NSF or Fulbright Programs.

Cultural knowledge as a weapon

The Bush Doctrine’s proximity to Minerva suggests a program designed to give the tools of culture to those in the military who will be told where to invade and occupy, not to those who might be asked of the wisdom of such actions.

Minerva seeks to increase the efficiency of implementing the Bush Doctrine, not the questioning of it.

Minerva doesn’t appear to be funding projects designed to tell Defense why the US shouldn’t invade and occupy other countries; its programs are more concerned with the nuts and bolts of counterinsurgency, and answering specific questions related to the occupation and streamlining the problems of empire. This sort of Soviet model of directed social science funding will make America’s critical perspective more narrow precisely at an historical moment when we need a new breadth of knowledge and perspective.


March 12 / 13, 2005
Exposing the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program: The CIA’s Campus Spies

Classroom spies

The secrecy surrounding the current use of university classrooms as covert training grounds for the CIA and other agencies now threatens the fundamental principles of academic openness as well as the integrity of a wide array of academic disciplines.


…there has been no public reaction to an even more troubling post-9/11 funding program which upgrades the existing American intelligence-university-interface. With little notice Congress approved section 318 of the 2004 Intelligence Authorization Act which appropriated four million dollars to fund a pilot program known as the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program (PRISP). Named after Senator Pat Roberts (R. Kansas, Chair, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence)…

Beyond a few articles in a Kansas newspaper praising Senator Roberts, as well as University of Kansas anthropologist Felix Moos’ role in lobbying for the PRISP, there has been a general media silence regarding the program.

The cultures and places that matter

PRISP recruits scholars with “advanced area expertise in China, Middle East, Korea, Central Asia, the Caucasus,” with a special emphasis given to scholars with previous linguistic expertise in “Chinese, Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Pashtun, Dari, Korean, or a Central Asian or Caucasian language such as Georgian, Turkmen, Tajik, or Uzbek.” PRISP also funds Islamic studies scholars and scientists with expertise in bioterrorism, counterterrorism, chemistry, physics, computer science and engineering.

Felix Moos: Imperial anthropologist

PRISP is largely the brainchild of University of Kansas anthropologist Felix Moos-a longtime advocate of anthropological contacts with military and intelligence agencies. During the Vietnam War Moos worked in Laos and Thailand on World Bank-financed projects and over the years he has worked in various military advisory positions. He worked on the Pentagon’s ARPA Project Themis, and has been as an instructor at the Naval War College and at the U.S. Staff and Command College at Fort Leavenworth. For years Moos has taught courses on “Violence and Terrorism” at the University of Kansas. In the months after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon Moos elicited the support of his friend, former CIA DCI, Stansfield Turner to curry support in the senate and CIA to fund his vision of a merger between anthropology, academia, intelligence analysis and espionage training…

…Moos is a bright man, but his writings echo the musty tone and sentiments found in the limited bedside readings of Tom-Clancy-literate-colonials, as he prefers to quote from the wisdom of Sun Tzu and Samuel Huntington over anthropologists like Franz Boas or Laura Nader.

It is tempting to describe Moos as an anachronistic anthropologist out of sync with his discipline’s mainstream, but while many anthropologists express concerns about disciplinary ties to military and intelligence organizations, contemporary anthropology has no core with which to either sync or collide and there are others in the field who openly (and quietly) support such developments.

Covert campus

Of course I would be remiss to not mention that students are the only ones sneaking the CIA onto our campuses. There are also unknown thousands of university professors who periodically work with and for the CIA–in 1988 CIA spokeswoman Sharon Foster bragged that the CIA then secretly employed enough university professors “to staff a large university.” Most experts estimate that this presence has grown since 2001.

The quiet rise of programs like PRISP should not surprise anyone given the steady cuts in federal funding for higher education, and the resulting pressures for more mercenary roles for the academy.

the current shift now finds a visible increase in students whose studies are driven by the market forces of Bush’s War on Terrorism.

If the CIA can use PRISP to indenture students in the early days of their graduate training-supplemented with mandated summer camp internships immersed in the workplace ethos of CIA-the company can mold their ideological inclinations even before their grasp of cultural history is shaped in the relatively open environment of their university. As these PRISP graduates enter the CIA’s institutional environment of self-reinforcing Group Think they will present a reduced risk of creating cognitive dissonance by bringing new views that threaten the agency’s narrow view of the world.

The self-censoring campus

Though no scholar can control the uses of information they make public, there does need to be an awareness of how any knowledge can be abused by others–and as awareness of the presence of PRISP spreads, many scholars may find themselves engaging in new forms of self-censorship and doublethink.

Healthy academic environments need openness because they (unlike the CIA) are nourished by the self-corrective features of open disagreement, dissent, and synthetic-reformulation.

The Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program infects all of academia with a germ of dishonesty and distrust as participant scholars cloak their intentions and their ties to the cloaked masters they serve.


May 21 / 22, 2005
CIA Skullduggery in Academia: Carry On Spying (or Pay Us Back at the Rate of 2,400 Per Cent)

Damaging Trust

Roberts and sources at CIA did not dispute the likelihood that having undisclosed CIA operatives amongst the ranks of academics could seriously damage the credibility of American academics conducting domestic and foreign research. This blasé attitude concerning the collateral damage of hapless academic bystanders will win Roberts no friends in the academy as the damage from such actions can be widespread.


many institutions are cultivating closer relations with intelligence agencies. New campus intelligence consortia are forming. Most of these are organizations like the National Academic Consortium for Homeland Security…which aligns research and teaching at member institutions with the requirements of Bush’s war on terror. But NACHoS is more of a programmatic loyalty marker than it is a key to inner sanctum funding. Member institutions range from Clackamas Community College to MIT. Interestingly, some of the universities that one might suspect would be NACHoS apex institutions (Harvard, Yale, Chicago etc.) are missing from the rolls.

The 251 universities in the consortium (www.homelandsecurity.osu.edu) have firmly declared their vague commitment to studying national security issues, antiterrorism, developing new Homeland Security technologies and to “educate and train the people required by governmental and non-governmental organizations, to effectively accomplish international and homeland security roles and responsibilities”.


Closing remarks

As these discussions have grown and spread across the Internet, it is surprising to see any anthropologist not fully considering, nor wishing to understand, the consequences for establishing rapport and relations of trust with “informants” where one does one’s “fieldwork.” Without the trust needed to gain intimate access to people’s everyday lives, expressed thoughts, and behaviour, any claims to knowledge gained are, to say the least, suspect.

The notion that there is little consequence for anthropologists’ reputations is one that I can counter with some personal experience doing research in a country that is (not far) removed from the swirl of developments surrounding the foolishly named “Global War on Terror.” This year marks the 20th anniversary of my first going to Trinidad & Tobago. In the passage of those 20 years, I have spent seven in Trinidad, and have kept up to date with the majority of media reports that were published in that time, and trying my best to keep up at a distance by reading Trinidadian news reports online. In all of that time, I have never seen an article in a Trinidadian newspaper devoted exclusively to anthropology, that is, until recently — with this one:

Henry Charles
Monday, 26 November, 2007

IN September this year, Robert M Gates, the US Secretary of Defence, authorised a considerable expansion in a novel Pentagon programme called “human terrain,” which embedded anthropologists in each of the combat brigades in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As the strategy became known, it quickly became polarising. Military personnel and anthropologists in the programme could see only positives in the move. Anthropologists on the outside gave it a failing grade.

Martin Schweitzer, a commander of an airborne division unit working with the new arrivals in Afghanistan, for instance, said that his unit’s combat operations had been reduced by 60 per cent since they came, and soldiers were able to focus more on improving security, healthcare and education for the population. [MF: Note, and this one statistic, this one report, never independently verified, would be repeated countless times for months afterwards.]

“We’re looking at this from a human perspective, from a social scientist’s perspective,” he said. “We’re not focused on the enemy. We’re focused on bringing governance down to the people.”

“Call it what you want,” said his colleague, Col David Woods, “it works. It works in helping you define the problems, not just the symptoms.”

The academic anthropological community, on the other hand, remains either uncomplimentary or hostile. Some of the members speak of “mercenary anthropology,” “armed social work,” or the exploitation of social science for military gain. They fear that whatever the successes or failures of the group, the overall impact will be that anthropologists abroad will be viewed as intelligence gatherers for the US military.

Hugh Gusterson, an anthropology professor at George Mason University and ten others are thus circulating an online pledge calling on colleagues to boycott the combat team, especially in Iraq. The pledge denounces involvement there as aiding and abetting the war and being guilty by association of its terrible tragedies:

“Anthropologists should not engage in research and other activities that contribute to counter-insurgency operations in Iraq or in related theatres in the ‘war on terror.’ While often presented by its proponents as work that builds a more secure world, at base it contributes instead to a brutal war of occupation which has entailed massive casualties.”

Gates expanded the “human terrain” initiative a few months ago, as I said, but the need for something like it was identified since 2003. Army officers in Iraq had complained that they had little or no information on the local population. In fact, prospective planning for Iraq after the anticipated “cakewalk” of an invasion was practically nil. Ignorance of the people and the culture was just one of the many resulting areas of strategic blindness.

The Pentagon contacted Montgomery McFate, a Yale-educated cultural anthropologist working for the navy. She advocated using social science to improve military operations and strategy.

McFate sees anthropology as a “crucial new weapon” in the war on terror, Author of a new counter-insurgency manual, she vigorously defends “human terrain,” and dismisses its critics.

“I’m frequently accused of militarising anthropology,” she says. “But we’re really anthropologising the military.”

McFate’s critics, on the other hand, dispute that what she does actually counts as anthropology. She is in large part, they say, just a tour guide accompanying the military on non-lethal missions.

The news reports themselves provide no account detailed enough to suggest what the programme looks like in totality across the theatres of war. What is suggested is a combination of social work, Emily Post, and useful advice on how to approach issues of an alien culture.

Ms McFate, for instance, describes her front-line colleagues as anthropological “angels on the shoulder,” offering advice to soldiers negotiating a poorly understood environment, telling them when not to cross their legs at meetings, how to show respect to leaders, and how to be ethnocentrically neutral.

She herself wears a military uniform and carries a gun during her sensitivity missions. In the words of Richard A Shweder, anthropology professor at the University of Chicago, and a participant at one of her explanatory sessions, “(it) brought to my increasingly sceptical mind the unfortunate image of an angelic anthropologist perched on the shoulder of a member of an American counter-insurgency unit who is kicking in the door of someone’s home in Iraq, while exclaiming, ‘Hi, we’re from the government; we’re here to understand you.'”

I couldn’t help thinking as I read various accounts of this new drive in counter-insurgency, what a totally different approach is suggested by the Peace Corps, still at work in over 70 countries of the world, and doing a great deal more to bring “governance down to the people,” in areas that include education, health, business, information technology, agriculture, and the environment.

Initiatives like “human terrain” unintentionally underline the need to expand the corps, revisit its mission and equip it with the means to transform it into a 21st-century engine for peace.

But to return to the present context, it seems to me that the issue for anthropologists is not whether the military should be better informed about foreign cultures and customs. It obviously should be. The real issue is the level at which anthropology becomes part of the fabric of foreign policy planning and determination.

Just by way of illustrating this point, I checked the index of Fiasco, Thomas E Ricks’ famous critique of the devolution of the Iraq war from executive decision to military execution. It contains not a single reference in any form to anthropology or anthropologists.

Scholars like McFate are obviously well-intentioned, but it’s unfortunate that at this point, late in the day of this war, people like her should become armed angels riding the shoulders of an uncertain American military.

4 thoughts on ““The Rendez-Vous between Fear and Opportunity”: David H. Price (notes and comments)

  1. Hello CC alumnus. I read your page with great interest. It seems as if you were basically issued with a restraining order for presenting your views. To tell someone they cannot come within 100 feet of a building, when 99 of those feet could be public proprerty, would seem to be illegal as it restricts your right to free movement in public, and it’s not like you had threatened to harm anyone or any structure. It was amazing to read — at my university the administration bends over backwards to accommodate even those students who come very close to being identifiable as neo-Nazis…and Canada actually has hate crime laws on the books.

    Having said that, I must confess that I am not one who is sold on the idea that 9-11 was an inside job, and it definitely is not because I don’t think that American leaders are incapable or unwilling to commit such acts, and much worse (i.e., the invasion of Iraq). I just don’t find the counter evidence convincing, by and large. I would be more prepared to consider the possibility that the Bush regime knew when the attacks would happen, how they would happen, and chose to let them happen rather than orchestrating the attacks themselves.

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