Suspect Media: Making Propaganda for the Human Terrain System (2.2)

Why do I say suspect media?

We know by now that The New York Times published completely false accounts that legitimized claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction leading up to the 2003 invasion. We see how CNN anchors, even now, continue to provide moments of careless speech when rushing out the words, “Iran’s nuclear weapons program,” when this remains to be proved (I hope Iran has those weapons, it will clearly need them for self-defense). I won’t even touch Fox News, which is the right wing sportscaster’s wet dream for a “news show” replete with its camera mugging, muscle-headed goof balls and retired strippers. And I have already posted about how one of the key staff members of the Human Terrain System is Laurie Adler, a paid propagandist who was responsible for planting fake news written from an American military perspective in the Iraqi media.

Yet, thus far, most news media have been skeptical about the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System, ranging from The New York Times itself to Newsweek. Independent writers, such as John Stanton, added especially critical articles (see here, and here).

Why the suspicion about Wired then?

Lately, there seems to have been some countervailing tendencies, with a couple of suspiciously pointless yet supportive pieces appearing in the U.S. media. One of those was Steve Featherstone’s article in Harper’s Magazine, which was followed up by Featherstone patrolling the blogs to see which anthropologists might be posting criticisms of the story, and in some cases offering some harsh responses (which seemed to have the intended impact on another, more vulnerable anthropology blogger). On this blog, Featherstone used most of his time to attack Stanton, without offering a grain of evidence to counter Stanton’s work. It was interesting to see that journalists are now touring the blogs to do follow up work as a result of their stories. Also interesting was how quickly and easily Featherstone blew away any pretense to being “impartial” that he might have wanted to cloak his work.

What was more surprising was this piece, by Noah Shachtman last night in WIRED magazine:

Shachtman, Noah. (2008). Montgomery McFate: Use anthropology in military planning. WIRED, 16.10, September 22, 2008. Retrieved September 23, 2008, from

This has since been expanded into a blog post:
“Army Anthropologist’s Controversial Culture Clash,” Wired: Danger Room.

WIRED, and especially its Danger Room blog posts, have been showing a healthy amount of skepticism and independent thinking and questioning about HTS, until last night.

Suddenly, we see an “article” that begins by regurgitating the hype about Montgomery McFate that is essentially copied from other sources, such as The San Francisco Chronicle‘s piece from 2007. Accompanying the presentation is a photo of an appreciably aged McFate, dressed up as some femme fatale from a 1940s Hollywood flick but apparently intending to resemble “Betty Boop” (according to WIRED’s Noah Shachtman), obviously something she or her handlers chose to deliver to WIRED.

Rehabilitation: More Lipstick on a Pig

The article in WIRED is a formal endorsement: WIRED is ranking McFate as one of the top 5 people the next president should listen to. Everything about the article, and its longer blog post version, is intended to serve as a makeover for the public persona of the celebrity figurehead of the Human Terrain System. Shachtman tries everything: McFate’s scandalous blog is merely the product of a mischievous streak (as if her work for HTS was not also mischief); McFate appreciates the troops for more than just their “abs;” he even manages to rehabilitate her cocktail napkin story while propelling HTS toward new imperial adventures and more illusions of success and greater delusions of grandeur:

“We can’t have effective strategy without cultural knowledge,” McFate says. “If you look at the problems we’ve had – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and Somalia – they’ve been based on flawed assumptions about who those people are.” If the president is going to make better decisions, he needs better insight into how other cultures work, she adds. Who knows? Maybe we can figure out “how to engage Iran to get the outcome we want without going to war.” Not bad for a back-of-the-napkin idea.

As if that were not enough propaganda, Shachtman does not question McFate’s spurious claim that her spy work was merely about figuring out “broad policy options” — policy options are not evident in the memo indicating she “visited target’s office.” As Shachtman states:

McFate says she researched broad policy topics and that her mother-in-law – from whom she has been estranged for many years-never disclosed her clientele.

Luckily, Mother Jones, which first broke the story — like real journalists do — about McFate’s role as a spy, had this to say in their own blog post, “Montgomery McFate Speaks (Sorta)” having caught Shachtman’s article immediately:

this is the first time McFate has publicly addressed her work for her mother-in-law, who has made a living spying on a host of activist groups. (She did not respond to an email from me seeking comment before we ran the story, and her husband, Sean, hung up on my colleague David Corn when he called him for his response.) McFate’s explanation to Wired doesn’t quite jibe with our reporting. While it’s possible, though unlikely, she was unaware of her mother-in-law’s specific clients, that’s beside the point since she was certainly aware of the business Mary Lou Sapone-and she herself-was in. In fact, McFate described her role in Mary Lou’s outfit in an old version of her resume that we got our hands on:

Collect and analyze intelligence on European activities of major international environmental organization for a company specializing in domestic and international opposition research, special investigations, issues management and threat assessment. Write weekly intelligence update on European animal rights and eco-terrorist activity. Assist in confidential litigation support research.

Moreover, during the time that Sapone was spying on the gun control movement for the gun lobby, McFate not only volunteered for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, but sat in for her mother-in-law at Washington strategy sessions attended by gun control officials. It would seem that this, along with her acknowledged work collecting and analyzing intelligence, went well beyond research “on broad policy topics.”

Shachtman also produces some wildly inaccurate figures for U.S. Defense spending on social science, producing unsubstantiated numbers for HTS, while inexplicably reducing the amount budgeted for the Minerva Research Initiative from the advertised $50 million (see page 4 here) to the unsupported $20 million. And the piece, besides being bland and offering nothing new, is littered with cheerful assessments of McFate’s genius and quotes from her well wishers, or more specifically, her boss.

But wait, there is more: McFate feels “guilty” about the two researchers who have been killed, two graduate students whose families will never see them alive again. Or does she?

And now she feels the weight of what she helped to bring about. “I didn’t realize that I felt guilty,” she says. “Then it hit me — really hard.” Her eyes fill with tears; mascara smears her cheek. “You do feel responsible for the program, and for all the people in the program. And when you have something that’s so deep and so emotional, you just, you have to keep going. There’s a mission that has to be accomplished. And the mission is very critical. And so it’s hard to find time ­ you know, personal time ­ to grieve. So I apologize for my weeping.” She gathers herself. Takes a breath.

You have to keep going — which means she has to keep going, as long as there is money to be earned, a reputation to defend, and a career to build. Does she feel guilty about imperiling the lives of all anthropologists overseas, who could be mistakenly suspected (or not) of being spies? As I have said on this blog before: the compromise of some of us is the compromise of us all — McFate remains unmolested by such concerns. Does she feel guilty about the locals who may have been sifted and sorted out as friendlies and not-so-friendlies that could have cost the lives of locals? Never. McFate cried on cue this time — but in her interviews with other media, she has been quite cold instead, quoted as flippantly making bizarre remarks about her own father’s suicide: “He rather flamboyantly threw himself off the Golden Gate Bridge.” What, did he do a triple somersault ten times on his way down? Did he pirouette off the bridge? What kind of person would say something like this? Remorse is merely her newest acting routine, with mascara for effect.

There is one line of recognition in the article that there has been any kind of controversy surrounding her and HTS:

“McFate herself has drawn fire from others in her field who say she’s more spy than scholar.”

Excuse me sir? “In her field”? In which anthropology department does McFate work? When has she ever worked as an anthropologist? Yes, she has a degree in anthropology, but also in law. So try this instead, Mr. Shachtman:

McFate, a lawyer who is seeking to recruit anthropologists for the military.

Yes, she did indeed work as a spy, it’s not an allegation. So try this instead, Mr. Shachtman:

A right wing corporate spy named Montgomery McFate is trying to get anthropologists to serve in counterinsurgency efforts. While still employed as a spy, she attended conferences of the American Anthropological Association, hoping to get recruits. She would even hand out business cards on which she identified herself as working in “corporate intelligence.” The spy is quoted as saying that she gets “giddy” any time she gets a letter of interest from an anthropologist who might potentially join HTS.

Shachtman also notes that McFate’s new image is meant to resemble Betty Boop, and that she was a former go-go dancer. On that basis, since this image and this occupation also make available these other labels, Mr. Shachtman you could have written:

A Betty Boop wannabe, this former go-go dancer would like to see more researchers risk their lives in war zones. Will she succeed?

What Shachtman did not uncover, and this is key to the reproduction of the celebrity status of McFate as the genius creator of the Human Terrain System, is that McFate simply stole the ideas from the real academic originator of the program, Andrea Jackson. McFate was merely to be the public face, she assured Jackson, until she started parading herself as the real brains of the program. Jackson has been booted, and deleted from any of the media discussions about the program — she is a non-person.

Not My Colleague. Not in My Name.

I do not think that many, even most, anthropologists have quite understood the damage to their profession, their reputation, and the harm that may befall them as a result of the close association of anthropology with McFate’s mission, an association clearly drawn by careless propagandists such as Shachtman in his article and blog post.

I have also said — well before Sarah Palin was chosen to run with McCain and Barack Obama’s comment  about lipstick — that I will not take part in putting collegial lipstick on a militarist pig. McFate is not my colleague. When she speaks of anthropology, she has no right to speak in the name of the field which I inhabit, and which she left. She is a highly offensive character, and a dangerous one. All of my responses on this blog were, therefore, very properly and carefully measured to suit.

Do I think that McFate is an anthropologist and that the Human Terrain Teams “do anthropology”? Of course not. If I did, I would have a very poor opinion of a discipline that I already criticize often severely. The HTTs are busy producing a Berlitz Field Manual of Counterinsurgency, with little anecdotes on local customs, advice on sitting down to tea, information on hand gestures, and some dated generalities about “tribes.” What I personally find entirely objectionable and repulsive, is the cosmetic effort to scoop up anthropology into the pockets of some elitist entrepreneurs such as McFate, used by a desperate regime that wants to convince a tired and disgusted American public that things are being changed, peace is being won, war will be done differently. Note that as the Human Terrain System gained pace, so did the pace of U.S. bombings in Afghanistan, and the murder of scores of civilians that followed — so much for war being done differently, and so much for the dutiful praises for HTS from the military elite.

HTS can be better understood as part of an effort to subdue and subjugate critical academic opinion, while recruiting academics as role models for the rest of their peers. No wonder then that the program’s propagandists, and their idiotic blog trolling sock puppets (yes, you “Dee,” we are all still laughing at you), want to have a program that either wins acclamation, or silence, but not criticism. In the absence of silence or applause, they turn ugly.

Needless to say, there will be another article to celebrate McFate in due course. Only so much “blog damage” can be sustained. In the meantime, HTS’ newest puppet is Noah Shachtman.

The Smell of Propaganda

While one can note the malodorous quality of a program that reaches fecal extremes, the key  point of the excrement is that WIRED is making propaganda for a program that is itself making propaganda for a war. It is not some sort of “solution” or “approach” that is meant for anything other than domestic consumption in the U.S., and domestic intellectual counterinsurgency. And on those grounds HTS is a near total failure: support for the wars has not risen, while domestic criticism from academics was always sharp.

Thus far, my favourite comment on the responses to the blog version (the second entry above) reads:

Nice advertisement for McFate and Human Terrain. Was this originally written by McFate’s publicist? How does the Pentagon work it out so that this same lite fluffy piece gets rewritten every four months? It doesn’t matter how many times McFate gets caught assisting in the spying on Americans (see MoJo article), getting mixed up in a plagiarism scandal involving the new Counterinsurgency Manual, condemnation from her anthropologist colleagues for ignoring basic ethical principles of the field, we can count on media puppets to ignore all this and to portray McFate as some sort of shining star.

Mr. Shachtman, I suggest you look twice at the hand holding your pen. You might also want to revisit the story of Judith Miller.

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8 thoughts on “Suspect Media: Making Propaganda for the Human Terrain System (2.2)

  1. pacer521

    No problem and thanks for the compliments, but we should be focusing on your post. By they way, two things: larry king live did an interview with the president of Iran. Also, if you are a foreign policy buff, I’d like to pass on this link, you might enjoy reading some of this guy’s work


  2. John Stanton


    There is some moaning and groaning in a related post about not citing sources and some quibbling over what a journalist is and what constitutes a legitimate article. It’s not an argument worth more than saying this: nothing.

    Here was my response to the Wired piece (coincided nicely with a rework of the HTS website). The people losing out in this are those in the field who have to cope with this dubious program.


    I have received dozens of emails from HTS field personnel about activities as recent as 21 September 2008. Problems internal to the program–such as program management & advisor–remain and are getting worse. Some have filed complaints with cognizant IG and are threatening to go to the US Congress, again, too. Program is likely (if not already underway) to be investigated for fraud, etc. I will discuss in a third piece on HTS.

    Portion of your piece about Mrs. McFate’s guilt/tears has already infuriated field personnel (uniform military and retired military contractors). Can’t imagine what the anthropology community will have to say.

    McFate’s supporters are dwindling and within TRADOC she is becoming a liability.


  3. Maximilian Forte

    Many thanks for the visit John, much appreciated. I will take your work over Noah Shachtman’s any day. He has thoroughly discredited himself with his last pieces (the article, and the expanded blog post version), and Mother Jones has immediately noted the odd exclusions in his article. If he wasn’t paid handsomely to write that rubbish, then he is a fool, because not even a PR firm would have had the gall to mount such a one-sided portrayal that makes light of, or simply ignores, vast amounts of discussion, critique, and detail.

  4. Pingback: Revised Post on Human Terrain System Propaganda « OPEN ANTHROPOLOGY

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