Third Article by John Stanton on the Human Terrain System: More Colonial Madness

The third in a series of articles by John Stanton on the follies and failures of the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System has just been released. The previous two articles can be seen here, and here.


US Army’s Human Terrain System: Madness, Mayhem and Troughs of Cash*

by John Stanton

*Part III of the Series. Part I is titled US Army’s Human Terrain System in Disarray. Part II is titled US Army’s Human Terrain System: From Super Concept to Absolute Farce

John Stanton is a Virginia based writer specializing in political in national security matters. His last book was Talking Politics with God and the Devil in Washington, DC. Reach him at cioran123[at]

Led by a wildly unpopular program manager (Steve Fondacaro) and a detached social science advisor (Mrs. Montgomery McFate Sapone), the HTS program continues to unravel. Program morale is at its lowest point in the short and controversial life of the program. Sources predict that more civilian HTT team members and soldiers will be killed/wounded because of lousy management practices and zero program oversight by upper echelon commanders/civilians. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and General David Petraeus are also responsible for this dark state of affairs. In placing a recycled concept miles ahead of proper foundation and structure, they have compromised warfighters-in-theater, destroyed lives, and created a get-rich program for the most mercenary of HTS personnel and private contractors looking for lucrative employment.

Gates and Petraeus are also to blame for perpetuating the belief that Irregular Warfare and Asymmetric Warfare are different from past Guerrilla/Unconventional wars the United States has been involved with, whether fought in urban or jungle terrain (the singular difference being the globalization of insurgent warfare).

As one source put it, “After the takeover in the North of Iraq (the Mosul area) by the Green Berets with their trained Peshmerga’s, they were kicked out by General Petraeus, who during that time was the 101st Commander. He did this because it was his Battlespace. Our so called military leaders are part of the problem. That is why we’ve been in neck deep in this whole thing for seven years. Every military commander (Colonels on up to Generals) that are not Green Berets are trying to justify their existence in this Unconventional War. The military has even gone as far as creating terms like Irregular Warfare and Asymmetric Warfare (re-inventing the wheel). The term Special Operations Forces in the military is used loosely now because the military wants everybody to be SPECIAL. Besides, if the Green Berets were allowed free reign in this war, what would we do with all the MRAPS, TANKS, STRYKERS, and all other sorts of junk that we bought for the rest of the troops that have no business fighting in this type of war? Bottom line is that our military is still set up to fight a Conventional War.”

This is what happens when money and bodies are thrown at an unstructured, recycled idea to “see what happens.” HTS Deputy Program Manager Steve Rotkoff (a 1977 graduate of West Point and a McNeil Technologies employee who achieved a measure of fame in Bob Woodward’s book State of Denial) who joined the HTS program in August of 2008 confirmed this point in an early September 2008 email message to HTS personnel, “Because this idea is so vital to our nation, it has grown more quickly than the in-place administration and structure to support it.” That confounded statement is at the core of the HTS program’s woes and, in a larger sense, to the national and military strategies/tactics currently operational. Indeed, a case can be made that the idea of the United States of America has grown too quickly for an administration and structure to support it.

Agents of Chaos

Many in the HTS program predict more deaths will occur because Human Terrain Team (HTT) members are poorly prepared for an insurgency environment and no one is providing a risk analysis for deployed members. One source indicated that a social scientist stationed with the US Marines in Al Anbar is “chasing IED’s” while another went out on a shopping adventure days after arriving in-theater. The social scientist, who has a Masters degree in communications, boasted in a blog about an escape from danger in Iraq by speeding recklessly through the streets of Baghdad while blaring music from a car. Another social scientist commented, “we are all islands of autonomy … doing what we want.”

Sources say Fondacaro and McFate-Sapone are not concerned with activity in-theater and that the measures of effectiveness they use are dubious and unquantifiable. For example, the “60 percent reduction in kinetic force in a small village in Afghanistan” is hardly quantifiable but is used to gin up more money for the program. Sources say Fondacaro’s advice is this: “If there are troubles, be sure to appear as a united front to the Brigade [Command].” But the reality in-theater is that most, if not all, of the HTS teams are dysfunctional and fragmented.

The word from Kindergarten Cop Rotkoff at the top was this: “I want to kill rumor mongering and innuendo in this organization. If you think something is broken bring me clear dispassionate facts with some form of documentation or evidence and I will fix it. Please discourage people from engaging in conspiracy theories or personal attacks whenever you encounter them. Do not engage in playing mom against dad. I will eventually find out that you are shopping around for the answer you want and it will irritate me greatly.”

Yet, multiple sources indicate that problems and solutions brought forward to HTS management result in firings or reassignments for, as one put it, “not going along with the original idea.” Mrs. McFate-Sapone reportedly nixes any dissent or critique of the HTS program. She has been described by HTS personnel as “a poisonous individual,” “the crazy aunt in the room”, and a “hustler”. One said “you’ve got to watch your six with her.”

Almost a year into the HTT deployment cycle, the HTS program has finally produced a Human Terrain System Handbook. There is debate, according to sources, in the HTS program about the basic structure of the HTT teams. Some have complained that there is no mission-essential tasking listed for the teams. Should the Human Terrain Team Leader, who has no cultural intelligence of the area, be the brigade commander’s advisor? Or should it be the social scientist?

One deployed anthropologist suggested that a social scientist should be the direct advisor to the Brigade Commander, while another social scientist–who suggested the same idea and recently returned from theater–is being terminated for the same view. In correspondence dated September 23, 2008, Mrs. McFate-Sapone stated that while “[the] social scientist did a great job for the Battalion Commander… I’m not sure that it’s a good idea to have someone on staff who doesn’t actually believe in the HTS mission.” Yet, there was a simple disagreement with the HTT structure, not the mission.

Harsher comments were reserved for Fondacaro. Sources likened him to a madman. “He is sending neophytes into theater and they will get killed.” BAE Systems has relinquished control of its employees and leaves them at the mercy of Fondacaro who is referred to as an “idiot” and “the worse program manager the US Army has ever seen”, said sources. Training is a waste of time, money and resources, they say. Sources say that both Michael Bhatia and Nicole Suveges — HTT social scientists tragically killed while deployed — rarely showed up to training. Program participants in Bhatia’s class said they are not even sure what training he attended or which training cycle he was in. “Fondacaro was in a rush to get a ‘warm body’ into theater, so Michael was sent in prematurely,” said a source.

Pontius Pilate Approach

BAE Systems’ employees complain about not having any contact with their employer while deployed. That’s because Fondacaro is their direct contact. But his approach is to sweep all issues under the carpet and protect himself from any fallout from US Army Brigade Command that would cause him embarrassment. Individuals who complain or offer solutions to improve the program are fired or ostracized. Fondacaro pushes program troubles onto BAE Systems by saying the Human Terrain Teams deployed are under the responsibility of the US Army Brigade Command. Discussions with the media are prohibited unless approved by Fonadacaro.

In the midst of this turmoil, BAE Systems has made a Pontius Pilate economic decision that the profits to be taken from the HTS funding trough are worth the daily troubles. According to sources, BAE Systems’ vice president, Steve Braun, who oversees the HTS contract, speaks with Fondacaro almost daily. People working in Fondacaro’s office at Oyster Point, Virginia, have heard him yelling and ranting at Braun like a “madman.” Fondacaro dictates to BAE Systems whom he wants hired/fired from the HTS program, forcing them to comply or they risk losing the contract. “If Fondacaro wants to priority-hire a felon or manic depressant, then so be it. The value of the contract is lucrative enough BAE Systems will provide that service, according to a program participant.”

Contractors looking to make money on the HTS program should beware. According to a defense industry analyst, “Several major defense contractors imagine that HTS will eventually turn into a technology development program, against which they can sell elaborate sensor and processing systems. Aside from a potential use of COMINT (communications intelligence) and social mapping network software, I really doubt that any major, high-dollar-value programs will come out of HTS that would be compatible with technology acquisition.”

Kuwait Blues

Meanwhile over in Kuwait it’s late September 2008. HTS teams have been sent to staging areas in Kuwait. It’s hot, nerves are a bit frayed and there is tension in the air. The last thing that needs to happen is a nightmare of the logistics type and missteps by program management. The “last thing” happens according to sources/internal correspondence.

“Morale is very low and continues to drop daily. Many personnel are staying in Kuwait City at their own expense. Some have even found a hotel that only charges $150 a day, plus a high tax. Meals are expensive; hence the high per diem. Personnel now know that…knew about the BAE (Building 48) Letters of Authorization (LOA) SNAFU but kept it to …,with the exception of your hint of delay to a few. Per HTS management e-mail that we are competing with 1000’s to get our LOAs fixed, and since it is doubtful Continental United States (CONUS) personnel other than Regional Readiness Command (CRC) work weekends, it’s anyone’s guess how long we will be stuck here. Personnel know that…used the Thursday we were at CRC to go to an all day beauty spa and get the works. Hence when personnel needed processing assistance, no one was available since…drove…to Atlanta. I saw…momentarily from a distance on Friday, movement day to ‘Freedom Hall.’ You can imagine comments that have been made that neither…saw HTS personnel off. Personnel are asking about returning to CONUS and waiting for the LOA SNAFU to get fixed. Some have suggested all contractors depart in mass and return home since their pay has been cut and weekends are not included while in Kuwait. Even paying for the flight out-of-pocket is cheaper than living on the economy.”

This is a hell of a way to run a program based on an idea that is so vital to the nation.

Writing in late September 2008, a source had this to say, “I was treated horribly. I have filed a complaint with the inspector general. If they do not address it, I plan on filing a Congressional.”

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11 thoughts on “Third Article by John Stanton on the Human Terrain System: More Colonial Madness

  1. Pingback: The Pentagon’s Culture Wars: An Article in NATURE for Oct. 2008 « OPEN ANTHROPOLOGY

  2. Frederick Melo

    I have no opinion to offer regarding the Human Terrain program, nor do I have any connection to it. I do have strong opinion to offer regarding the death of my former college roomate, Michael Bhatia.

    You seem to imply that Bhatia may have skipped out on some form of training, and that’s what got him killed. Hardly the case at all.

    Bhatia was a conscientious student in college — he was overwhelmingly absorbed by his studies, and some who knew him in his Phd program at Oxford have said that he was an over-achiever there, even by their high standards. Read his memoriam in Brown University’s magazine, the Brown Alumni Monthly.

    Here’s more:

    At his funeral, in fact, soldiers spoke glowingly of how well trained he had been. While watching him changing out of his socks during a rest stop as a standard precaution against infection, one approached him early on and asked, “What branch of the military were you in?”

    It was not training or a lack thereof that killed him. The bomb blast tore apart his jeep and killed a fellow soldier in it, as well. It also maimed two other soldiers, destroying their legs. You can’t duck a blast, and no amount of training protects you from it.

    I have no idea whether Michael was “sent in prematurely” or not, but I do knew he traveled to Afghanistan at least six times or more. He conducted hundreds of interviews there with everyday people and combatants for a three-part photo essay on Afghanistan, which is available free of charge online at the

    In any event, the bottom line is his training has absolutely no bearing on his death.

  3. Pingback: Priming the Propaganda Pumps: More Sales Pitches for the Spreading Human Terrain System « OPEN ANTHROPOLOGY

  4. Maximilian Forte

    Hello again Frederick, the following is a comment passed along to me by a friend who would prefer not to get directly engaged in this discussion, but it is in reply to your comment:

    “It’s a shame that the colleague of Michael would find it necessary to defend him.
    No one was challenging Michael’s intelligence or ability to do his job, or his
    experience in Afghanistan. The point I thought you were making is that there is no
    mechanism to do any type of risk analysis, and that this is not even part of HTS
    training or daily operations. I think any unit knows what its people are doing at
    all times, and that certain warnings or advisories are issued, etc. That is not
    done for any HTTer in country.”

  5. Pingback: Updated: Human Terrain Researcher Set on Fire in Afghanistan; plus new Articles on the Human Terrain System « OPEN ANTHROPOLOGY

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