What are the Pentagon’s Minerva Researchers Doing?

(This post comes thanks to some leads on the James Petras website and Petras’ own essay on the Minerva Research Initiative, “Procuring Academics for Empire: The Pentagon Minerva Research Initiative“.)

In late December of 2008 I posted about the news of the first recipients of the Pentagon’s Minerva Research Initiative, but until I saw the reference in Petras’ own essay above, I had missed the article by Jeffrey Mervis in Science (30 January 2009, Vol. 323, No. 5914, pp. 576-577 — the article is behind a pay wall), “DOD Funds New Views on Conflict With Its First Minerva Grants“. In that article, Mervis indicates some of the background and intended research of the Minerva researchers, and I had promised that any further information about them would be posted here.

In total, 211 letters of interest from potential grantees were received for the Minerva Research Initiative. That may be “good news” when one considers the fact that there are tens of thousands of social scientists in the U.S. alone (and Minerva offers funding to foreign academics as well), a tiny minority that was impressed by what Mervis calls “a banquet for a field accustomed to living on scraps”. Indeed, one of the awards, for Nazli Choucri, a political scientist at MIT, is for $10.4 million over five years, enough money to buy her the status of academic Pharaoh.

Militarized Academia and Military Academics

While numerous academic critics have been careful to elaborate the ethical, scholarly, and political flaws of social science in the service of the national security state (with the SSRC hosting some of those essays in its Minerva discussions — the site no longer promises more articles in the future), with the argument being that we will essentially see the Sovietization of knowledge production with the Pentagon funding essentially what it wants to hear, it turns out that the relationship between the Pentagon and some researchers is closer than one may have expected. Mervis himself reports,

Many of the Minerva grantees already have ties to the defense establishment. One such grantee is David Matsumoto, a professor of psychology at San Francisco State University in California. His team will study the role of emotion in stoking or quelling ideologically driven movements. A longtime collaborator with psychologist Paul Ekman in his work on microexpressions, Masumoto has helped train airport screeners for the Transportation Security Administration and has worked with several DOD agencies over the years on what he calls “behavior-detection techniques.”

On the other end of the career continuum is Jacob Shapiro, an assistant professor of public affairs at Princeton University. A former U.S. naval officer who was on active duty from 1998 to 2002, he completed his postdoc only 1 year ago and is lead researcher on a project to understand the economics of counterinsurgency movements around the world. “I entered the academic community because I felt there were not enough veterans in the academy, and that is not a good thing,” he says. “The military represents all of society and so should the academy.”

While one of the Minerva recipients, Mark Woodward (professor of religious studies at Arizona State University) asserts to Mervis that, “We’re not in the business of providing DOD with information that is tactical or operational. This is basic social science research. It’s not telling the government what it wants to hear” — clearly some of the applicants were in an advantageous position of already knowing how to say what the Pentagon would want to hear, and if it funds the research, let’s not be so demurely prudish about it, it’s because the Pentagon wants to hear it.

Using what Mervis reveals, the following is a rough categorization of the research being done by the Minerva recipients. Note that not all of the Minerva recipients were willing to talk with Science (one can understand that phrasing in more ways than one) — James Lindsay of the University of Texas at Austin barked: “I don’t owe you an explanation, and I have nothing to say about the program.” Ironically, the Pentagon promises open disclosure about the research it funds, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates committed himself to “complete openness” when selling the Minerva idea to American universities a year ago.

Research that Violates International Law: Stolen Iraqi Documents

As previously established, one of the funded research streams under Minera invites academics to participate in the ongoing violation of international law, by making use of millions of documents that U.S. forces illegally seized and expatriated from Iraq. Dr. Saad Eskander, Director General of the Iraqi National Library and Archives has made an international campaign of the return of the documentary property of Iraq, challenging the colonial efforts of Americans to write Iraq’s past. Eskander himself said that this is “undeniable cultural imperialism,” that violates Iraqi self-determination, international law, and academic research ethics. He wrote: “This latest Pentagon initiative is not only a continuation of its previous negative attitudes, but it also constitutes an escalation in its violation of international conventions on the safeguarding of cultural heritage of occupied territories, and goes against the principles of rule of law, self-determination, and human rights that are supposed to govern the so-called Free World….Records are fundamental for the construction of any nation’s collective historical memory. This is why the protection of documentary heritage has been enshrined in international legislation, notably the 1954 Hague Convention“. Ethically, the “Iraqi Perspectives” project of Minerva, which excludes Iraqis from developing their own perspectives on their own past, is also an ethical toilet — Eskander wrote: “Providing access to sanctioned US universities, US research centers and US scholars is gross discrimination against the undeniable owners of the seized records, the Iraqi People, who are the main subject of the records. By taking this ill-conceived action, the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence agencies have disregarded important considerations, including the right to privacy, the appreciation of cultural distinctions, respect for the social sensitivities of another nation, and respect for the rights of the victims”.

The Minerva recipient doing research using these stolen documents is Patricia Lewis, a nuclear physicist at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California,  who “will lead a team analyzing materials captured in 2003 that many social scientists say do not even belong in U.S. hands”. Given that there is no disputing that this research is both unethical and against international law, it is incumbent upon publishers, academic journals, and academic societies not to aid in the circulation of her research and the promotion of her academic career on such a foundation.

Counterinsurgency Against Palestinians

Eli Berman, whose name was not announced in the Pentagon’s news release of Minerva recipients last December, is a labour economist at the University of California at San Diego — according to Mervis, Berman is working with Jacob Shapiro “to understand what it takes for communities to counteract grass-roots movements such as Hamas or the Tamil Tigers”. His strategy is to engage in global surveillance and unspecified “experiments”: “Instead of just a summer salary and a graduate student, I’ll be able to do surveys and experiments around the world, partner with additional organizations, and bring on postdocs as well as several graduate students”.

Cyberspace Surveillance

Nazli Choucri, already mentioned, instead proposes another kind of surveillance, using cyberspace. Her interest is “to examine cyber international relationships. The team includes foreign policy and national intelligence heavyweights such as Harvard University’s Ashton Carter and Joseph Nye, as well as Internet and artificial intelligence gurus such as MIT’s David Clark”. Choucri told Mervis: “Our current theories are inadequate, and what we know now is anecdotal. In the cyberworld, anybody can play. We need a fuller vocabulary to understand cyberspace as an environment, as well as the conceptual tools to couple the virtual and the real worlds”.

Monitoring Immigrant Muslims in Europe

Mark Woodward, already mentioned, “is working with Muhammad Sani Umar of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, an expert on Islam in western Africa, and David Jacobson, a professor of global studies at ASU, who’ll examine Islamic communities in France and Germany. The project will combine ethnographic fieldwork at each location with global survey data on public attitudes toward Muslims. It will also feature a Web component to track the flow of ideas across the various Islamic communities and analyze their influence on daily life”.

Mervis tells us more about Woodward at the outset of his article:

Currently a visiting professor at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, Woodward recalls a recent visit to a mosque nearly destroyed by an earthquake. A Saudi Arabian foundation that was financing its reconstruction also wanted to provide a teacher who would disseminate Wahabi-style Islam. Village elders politely but firmly declined the instructional assistance, Woodward says. “This is Wahabi colonialism,” said one local leader. “We don’t need Arabs to teach us Islam.” That reaction is why Woodward believes that “the forces of locality” will prevail in a clash of ideologies. “I think that attempts to establish hegemonic Islam are going to fail, through very creative uses of traditional rituals and language,” he says.


The Pentagon was supposed to announce a new call for Minerva applications this spring, even if the site that is used to post the call for applications does not seem to have posted anything thus far.

One of the important points that comes out of this is that research that can be judged as unethical need not involve information collection by the researcher (the use of stolen Iraqi documents involves no collection on the academic’s part), it need not involve fieldwork, and it may simply be devoted to analysis. This realization seems to have gained new attention by the American Anthropological Association’s Ad Hoc Commission on Anthropology’s Engagement with the Security and Intelligence Communities (CEAUSSIC). In a recent post on the AAA blog, Dr. Robert Albro, analyzes the ethical implications of various forms of research done by “anthropologists as analysts” as distinct from anthropologists as fieldworkers (as in the Human Terrain System). Albro asks in his concluding paragraph:

As analysts who are familiar with anthropology’s debates will tell you, their work is not “providing specific information on particular informants.” Nor are an analyst’s products usually classified so much as are some of the “sources.” Analyst shops readily recognize the virtues of transparency, and a dialogue on what transparency means in that context is worth having. An important part of such a discussion would be to track the implications of the need to distinguish ethically between disciplinary concepts and ethnographic content, between data collection and analysis, as separate jobs. Do we have the ethical language, in short, to address the ubiquitous, if mundane, community of analysts?

The wider problem is indeed with “our” ethical language, which has been minimalist and contingent, and often reduced to very precise research procedures rather than relating to social positions, global inequalities in power, and the historical role of anthropology as a discipline institutionalized in the world-system’s core academies. Put simply, no, “we” do not have such language. Such language can be drawn, however, from a variety of wells, including decolonizing and Native research methodologies (see Brown & Strega, and Tuhiwai Smith), African critiques within anthropology of the Eurocentric and colonial nature of anthropology, and even what is readily at hand concerning Minerva, such as Saad Eskander’s critique linked above, and that of Priya Satia. In other words, the need is to move beyond the procedural and strictly methodological, and move into the social and political, concerning anthropology and academia’s wider responsibility to others, the vast majority of whom are not powerful and privileged others. Specifically, regarding Minerva, yes the AAA needs to move beyond HTS debates and redress its continued silence on some of the glaring ethical and legal breaches of the program.

One thought on “What are the Pentagon’s Minerva Researchers Doing?

  1. […] On three previous occasions I raised the issue of the illegality of seizing Iraqi documents, relocating them to the U.S., and then controlling access to them for the purpose especially of Pentagon-funded academic researchers–see: “Minerva Research Initiative Violates International Law and Iraqi Sovereignty,” and “Minerva Project and Looted Iraqi Documents,” and “What are the Pentagon’s Minerva Researchers Doing?“. […]

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