Information Traffickers of the Imperial State: American Anthropologists and Other Academics

From the Homeland Security Act of 2002:

“The Secretary, acting through the Under Secretary for Science and Technology, shall designate a university-based center or several university-based centers for homeland security. The purpose of the center or these centers shall be to establish a coordinated, university-based system to enhance the nation’s homeland security.”

Uniform “Research”

We have been looking at the array of private corporations with contracts for intelligence, surveillance, and targeted killing that are involved in recruiting, training, and equipping the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System, and its program of recruiting social scientists. In addition, we examined some examples of the “human terrain” as a doctrine, taken up by both independent and university-based research institutes, and by sections of the military itself and for itself, without necessarily seeking the aid of the academy. Here we look at a broader phenomenon, more reminiscent of the way the national security state has tried to rope academics into “terror research” via the Minerva Research Initiative. In particular, we are dealing with universities, or units within them, making themselves into willing servants of the national security state, actively seeking contracts for terror research, selling their expertise to make war against those who resist unprovoked aggression and occupation by the U.S. state.

In essence they are selling protection, in this case knowledge for protection (“security”), and as we have seen this is not the only suggestion of racketeering. More than that, we are faced with a case of what some might call the Sovietization of the academy, what others could rightly identify as the reinvention of a fascist university that aligns with the state, under the guise of serving the people, hoping we do not detain our attention on the fact that it is in classical fascist regimes where the state is equated with the people.

We ought to be reminded here of the very wise warnings that have been articulated by Hugh Gusterson and David Price, and the Network of Concerned Anthropologists to which they belong:

in a society where thought is already too deeply militarized, academic spaces of dissent from the prevailing military mindset will be further eroded as researchers talk themselves into believing that telling the military how to do kinder, gentler, more informed military occupations represents critical thinking. (Hugh Gusterson and here in “Unveiling Minerva)

Regarding the iron clad institutionalization of the Lysenko doctrine in the Soviet academy, David H. Price wrote,

So powerful was Lysenko’s impact that the bogus experimental data he produced to justify his work stood unchallenged for decades as valid empirical work.

Soviet biologists learned to align their work with the state’s conception of the world, and the career’s of those dissidents who would not so align their views fell by the wayside.

The demands of conforming scientific knowledge with the ideological positions of a powerful state stunted the development of Soviet biology for decades.  But today, 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. (David H. Price, “Social Science in Harness“)

“University” of Maryland: START…back in 1984

One example of what I mentioned in the first paragraph is in focus here: the University of Maryland’s START leading a National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, with the University of Maryland boasting that it is a “center of excellence of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security“, one of several in a program instituted in 2002 — deriving its legitimacy, and supposedly its prestige (?), from such an association. According to the START website, anthropologists are among the 65 researchers working in the program. START derives its senior advisors from the military, intelligence, and defense contracting industry.

A banner image appears on the front page, with the American flag caressing the New York City skyline (the  seemingly redundant reminder that this distinctive skyline is American is meant to appeal to patriotism). It’s a skyline of patriotism, a frontline in war against “terror.” But look at this! What does this skyline have? It has the World Trade Center in it:

One might ask, “But weren’t the WTC Towers destroyed? They’re not part of that skyline anymore.” To that the banner answers, “Exactly! Now you get our point.” Making this even more ridiculous is that it decorates a university website, where intellectuals have stopped being intellectuals and have instead become data gathering apparatchiks. There is no freedom of thought here, no autonomy, rather we have ritual incantation of magical patriotic tropes, playing on fear, and we should all know very well what the powerful effect of fear is on the ability to think rationally and critically. So much for unemotional, objective science, we have its representation above.

Research at START is divided into three working groups. One looks at “terrorist group formation and recruitment.” No mention here, of course, of even the slightest hint of the possibility that the U.S. provokes responses to its own state terror, or that such an idea could even be discussed. (This is the “University” of Maryland after all, and we are not meant to read too much into that archaic first word in its title.) Far from it, and if anything one merely expressing such concerns might draw their aim, as the primary concern of this working group is “radicalization” — radicalization, happening elsewhere, according to its own laws, its own logic, hermetically sealed off from the actions and effects of U.S. imperialism.

The second working group focuses on “terrorist group persistence” — persistence, of course, because U.S. strategies have failed to do anything other than spread the conflagration. Note here the tremendous fear, and the aspersions implicitly cast by these “researchers” when it comes to “radicalization” — it turns out that the “pyramid of terrorism” includes at its base “all who sympathize with terrorist goals, even though they may disagree with terrorists’ attacks on civilians.” Get it? You may well be a terrorist.

The third working group has to do with “societal responses to terrorist threats and attacks,” which makes sense, because there is no point cultivating fear if you cannot inculcate it and train the populace to unanimously respond in concert when “threatened.” These are always innocent victims, but apparently innocent also in the sense of simpletons, mentally impaired, child-like, innocent as in retarded by fear. This is an inclusive program, that seeks to bring its findings down to the level of “household and community preparedness for terrorist attacks.”

Is START an isolated case. Hardly. Look at its impressive list of U.S. academic partner institutions.

Workshop of Military Anthropology in the UK

We find other, smaller-scale examples of universities and their academics seeking to cash in on “terror research” by offering their knowledge as a source of “protection.” One example involves the “Culture in Conflict Symposium” at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, on 16 – 17 June 2010. It includes a Workshop on “Spatial Sociocultural Knowledge” (read human terrain) and followed by a one-day Military Anthropology Workshop. There is no clearer expression of the way academics have become comfortable players in the pyramid scheme of war corporatism than when they call themselves “military anthropologists.”

U.S. Pacific Command’s Socio-Cultural Dynamics Program

Of course it is not always up to the initiative of academics to create academic centers that supply research to the national security state. As with Minerva, the state itself can seek out research, but sometimes in even more innocuous and surreptitious ways. Corey Stutte, the Engagement Manager for U.S. Pacific Command’s (PACOM) Socio-Cultural Dynamics (SCD) Program has announced that they “will have opportunities in the near future for professors and students to publish non-military related Asia-Pacific research articles that will be used by both civilian and military decision makers.” Stutte is looking for “information gaps” in “both military and socio-cultural intelligence for the Asia-Pacific region.”  How to fill those gaps? Invite academics to supply it in the form of published journal articles, as “mid to long term socio-cultural dynamics requirements…can best be met by academia,” and for that reason PACOM is establishing a quarterly academic E-Journal (yet to be named) hosted by PACOM to provide a central location for publishing research on important non-military matters.”

Stutte is the social science “academic liaison” for PACOM. Among his tasks is to “develop SCD contracts with academia and/or industry think tanks. The SCD academic outreach may include, but not be limited to, organizations with expertise in the fields of: Cultural Anthropology….” He will “develop and implement a JIOC academic/industry engagement strategy and a geo-referenced SCD data acquisition plan,” and “establish and optimize the working relationship between JIOC, academia, and industry to incorporate geo-referenced SCD data into PACOM JIOC analysis” and he will “monitor SCD data collected through PACOM’s academic outreach to ensure that data adheres to PACOM taxonomy requirements.” Surely, it is purely innocent journal publishing.

Social Scientists to Fight Jihadists

I’ve been with would-be martyrs and holy warriors from Morocco’s Atlantic shore to Indonesia’s outer islands, and from Gaza to Kashmir….This is an apt moment for such a hearing, given the recent uptick in homegrown terror activities” — Dr. Scott Atran, anthropologist, director of research for ARTIS Research and Risk Modeling, speaking to the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, 10 March 2010, p. 2

With reference to “upticks” of violence (because they can be so calibrated, presumably) Scott Atran deployed his security-speak to address research on conflict in “hotspots” (what the rest of us know as places where U.S. hegemony is put at risk). He told the Senate subcommittee that, “If you want to be successful in the long run where it counts ─ in stopping the next and future generations of disaffected youth from finding their life’s meaning in the thrill and adventure of joining their friends in taking on the world’s mightiest power; if this committee is to be truly relevant in solving the radicalization problem that it poses, then you have to understand these pathways that take young people to and from political and group violence. Then, knowing these pathways, you can do what needs to be done” (p. 2). His major complaint was that this research was not being well funded. Money, for protection.

This is the now usual sales pitch, pioneered by the Human Terrain System: research to save lives and money (p. 2). Atran promises results, to counter “radicalization,” none of which involve the U.S. changing its basic approach to the world. The U.S. is blameless, it is those “rootless and restless” others that “we” are to be concerned about. As with the START banner above, a deep rooted patriotism is what ultimately underpins the thinking here.

Atran is not calling for another HTS program, however, his plan has one difference: “There is a pressing need for fieldwork by social scientists in actual and potential conflict zones. There is also compelling case for involving social scientists in helping to form cultural and social awareness in the military theater. Nevertheless, social scientists should not be directly embedded with military units in theater” (p. 6). Indeed, he can become quite critical of HTS, for being both counterproductive, dangerous, and should be made redundant:

I do not think that efforts like the Human Terrain System experiment in Afghanistan are all that promising. It is the infantry units themselves that should be trained before they go in theater to be culturally sensitive, and not have to rely on temporarily embedded “combat ethnographers” who move from unit to unit, thus undoing the personal connections that may have made them effective with the local population by providing medical aid and other needed non military services.

such efforts as these, small as they are, are potentially quite counterproductive. They only further alienate most social science academics from the military or, indeed, from any involvement in U.S. policy decision making that involves projection of power or conflict. The military and cultural reality of the terrain may favor having embedded social scientists be uniformed and armed (in part, because unarmed Western civilians would more likely draw fire as high-value targets). But the possibility that social scientists themselves would have to fire their weapons and perhaps kill local people – indeed, the mere sight of armed and uniformed American social scientists in a foreign theater – is guaranteed to engender academia’s deep hostility. (p. 6).

Yet it is superficial critique that is offered by Atran, a mere difference over tactics, not goals, and in that he largely misses the point made by Gusterson and Price above. Atran’s “solution” to the divide between anthropology and the military is this: “Training and rewarding soldiers for being culturally knowledgeable and socially savvy ─ which goes beyond learning a language or studying a checklist of cultural preferences and habits ─ could be so much more effective for achieving our country’s political and military mission. Moreover, involvement of top social scientists in deliberations such as these, and in publicly transparent field projects, could help heal the divide between some of our best thinkers and policymakers and operators” (p. 6).

His program? “Preventing radicalization…Countering radicalization…De-radicalizing those who have committed to violence” (p. 6). Americans have not achieved this at home, but some promise success in foreign societies and cultures. Atran proposes to give “jihadist” youth new heroes (p. 7). Hamid Karzai? Mahmoud Abbas? Brittney Spears?

This program raises all the serious questions that confronted HTS. It is difficult to see how ATRIS, or START for that matter, can secure approval from an Institutional Review Board, the body that in an American university examines whether research follows basic ethical principles. It seems improbable that ATRIS researchers could secure informed consent, or engage in anything other than deceptive research whose aim is to harm those studied. It would not appear to be research that is either ethical, open, or one that respects the reputation of anthropology. Yet again, another program that will make us all look like state spies.

But what impressed me the most, especially about the tenor and content of Scott Atran’s opening words to the senators a few days ago, was that I had heard all of this long ago. Readers can ascertain this for themselves, by viewing this video clip from Atran’s address to the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities:

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10 thoughts on “Information Traffickers of the Imperial State: American Anthropologists and Other Academics

  1. I will resume this series later next week, with a follow up on the academics directly involved in supporting HTS, and a synopsis of a recent piece on AFRICOM authored by Robert Albro…time permitting.

  2. People should also read:

    Barbara Rose Johnston:
    Anthropologists in the Amazon — Secrets of the Tribe

    especially this:

    The core elements of anthropology’s ethical code are the obligation to secure free and prior informed consent and the commitment to do no harm. Today’s ethical norms strive towards research that not only occurs with informed consent, it is problem-focused — shaped in collaborative ways to address problems and needs of mutual concern.

    Such an approach is impossible when research is defined, funded, and used by more powerful actors in non-transparent ways.

    Consider the role of anthropologists in assisting the US military and their efforts to secure valuable data from vulnerable communities in Iraq and Afghanistan. The role of the anthropologist, like that in the 60s era Atomic Energy Commission-funded research expeditions, is that of the culture broker and research facilitator. The anthropologist develops rapport and soothes tensions in ways that allow their military companions to get their data. Given that the research objectives, the setting, and the conduct of “researchers” and subjects is defined or dictated by an external authority – in this case, the military – compromises and ethical quandaries become the norm.

    Scott Atran, far from overcoming HTS’ ethical conflicts and violations, merely reproduces them. His program is no answer at all, and will thus fail to achieve another of his stated goals: allaying the serious concerns of anthropologists in working with the military.

    And there is an ultimate reason why: the military, engaged in warfare and occupation, can never present a good ethical choice for anthropology. Atran et al. need to stop the patriotic drum beating and stop trying to rope academics to fall in lockstep behind the imperial state.

  3. I just watched Scott Atran’s address to the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities in the video link you provided. Stunning testimony, I can see why the committee will be funding his requests; he has me believing in the science backing up everything he says. That sonic irritation weapon (developed and refined by DARPA) he demonstrated to get the senators’ attention is worth the $10,000 start-up fee he requests. I’m feeling safer already.

  4. Thanks very much David, your comments have further improved the video! It is rare to find people posting here with any sense of humour, and I can imagine the knitted eyebrows and frowns that you have made appear on some stuffy faces, with that posting.

  5. I am awfully sorry I have to say this, but I think you have been pretty unfair toward this great anthropologist: his plan is not as simplistic and narrow-minded as the reader can infer from what appears in your post.
    Actually, I have been kindly provided with video footage of what happened just after his address to to the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee: it appears that the great scientist met the President of the USA in person. He then proceeded to explain in details to the President what he called “Plan B”, which could be enacted in case things do not unfold exactly as planned in his adress, i.e in case of full-blown nuclear war.

    Here is the footage :

    Even though some little details might appear as slightly strange, I believe this is absolutely authentic.


    On a more personal note, the following ressembles how I would like to thank this great anthropologist and others his kind for the service they pay to the profession, and for their exemplary commitment to justice :

  6. Sorry for the spam, but as Atran also works in Paris, and as I have now read his whole piece about “violent extremism” I wanted to offer him and his buddies one more song (in french this time).

    Before that, let’s keep in mind this wonderful sentence from Atran, about the validity of his proposals :

    Ask any cop on the beat: those things work.

    Lyrics :

    I think that the kind of “research” those people propose, and the kind of career they are embracing through it, are very good illustrations of what Bourdieu called “cynical use” of social sciences.

    How long before people like Atran go and beg the military for research funding in order to “de-radicalize” activists (anti-militarists or anti-fascists for example) ?

    Finally, thanks Max for this post, especially for the hilarious video.

  7. Thank you! Next time we might try an experiment, to produce the equivalent of a post through a chain of videos. Unfortunately, without some narrative text, “the point” might be lost on a lot of viewers. Thanks for the comments and the video links.

  8. Very interesting research, thanks for this article. But one question I have about ARTIS is if it’s affiliated with any university, because if it isn’t would Atran or anyone else with it need to go through a university’s ethics review panel before doing their work in “counter radicalization”? After what you showed about Maryland’s START, I am starting to think that maybe some universities might not really care when it comes to
    this bulls–t terrorism research anyway since it’s line with their hallowed “national security” paranoia and megalomania.

  9. Sorry, I almost missed this. Now that you raise this, it seems to be less clear whether Atran in fact needs to go through a university Institutional Review Board. First, and I really neglected this now that I go back and take a closer look, ARTIS is an independent organization that is not affiliated to any university (see: Second, Atran does a lot of academic hop-scotching, so who knows which university he answers to in the end, it seems to be the John Jay College of Criminal Justice ( Third, and this undermines his sales pitch to the Senate, it’s not clear how much information ARTIS actually gathered itself, as it seems to rely mostly on data gathered from others (in which case, they should be the ones to plea for funding) — see: Fourth, the ARTIS website says that ARTIS grew out of collaboration with RTI (an organization I researched for my “mapping the war corporatism of the human terrain” article since I came across an article published by its fellows that used the “human terrain” concept, but in connection with public health and natural disasters…so I left them out). RTI is not a university-based entity, but rather an independent organization. It has a code of ethics, mostly devoted to workplace issues, but its single paragraph on human subjects research is quite comprehensive: Incidentally, have a look at RTI’s illustrious Senior Management, with figures from the defense industry, Monsanto (!), Pepsi, General Dynamics, and various investment firms (

    To put it simply: no, it doesn’t seem like ARTIS goes through any university ethics review of its research, nor do research ethics receive even passing mention on the ARTIS site.

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