Human Terrain System Criticized by U.S. Congress

The U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee (HASC) has issued a criticism of the Human Terrain System, limiting its funding until the U.S. Army can submit a formal review that addresses “certain concerns.” (Thanks as well to “Napkin Chagnon” for the update.)

In a document titled, “H.R. 5136 – Nation Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011,” the HASC stated the following regarding HTS (see page 25):

Human Terrain System
While the Committee remains supportive of the Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS) to leverage social science expertise to support operational commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is increasingly concerned that the Army has not paid sufficient attention to addressing certain concerns. The Committee encourages the Department to continue to develop a broad range of opportunities that leverage the important contributions that can be offered by social science expertise to support key missions such as irregular warfare, counterinsurgency, and stability and reconstruction operations. The bill limits the obligation of funding for HTS until the Army submits a required assessment of the program, provides revalidation of all existing operations requirements, and certifies Department-level guidelines for the use of social scientists.

While the HASC continues to back drafting academics into irregular warfare counterinsurgency–criticized on ethical and professional grounds by the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Anthropological Association (see synopsis of each of these statements here)–it is interesting to note that the HASC is paying at least some attention to the kinds of issues raised in the top three points of the NCA’s “Anthropologists’ Statement on the Human Terrain System Program.” Also striking is the HASC stating that it wants the Army to continue to “to develop a broad range of opportunities” that use social scientists, which would suggest moving beyond HTS, and perhaps into the multiple other human terrain programs. The HASC asks for a “revalidation” of “operations requirements,” which would seem to suggest that the Army needs to justify continued use of HTS. Also important, or potentially important, is the demand that the Army certifies “Department-level guidelines for the use of social scientists” which, one might assume, given the details and the provisos elucidated by John Stanton, that HTS is in compliance with the Army’s internal ethics review board, specifically the protection of human subjects. HTS work has not been subject to formal ethics review, and it is not clear that it was ever offered a waiver by the Army, which would have been a damning move given the intense public scrutiny and criticism of HTS, on ethical grounds, from the AAA.

Though couched in diplomatic and bureaucratic terms, one can assume that HTS directors are not cheering tonight, although their competitors might be.

It seems appropriate to add: hats off to our blogger and independent reporter John Stanton for all of his reports–about three dozen articles–on the mismanagement of the Human Terrain System, which appears to be among the key concerns.

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18 thoughts on “Human Terrain System Criticized by U.S. Congress

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  3. Jeremy Trombley

    Good news, though not quite as thorough a denouncement of HTS and military anthropology as we would hope for.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      From the time this congressional review was announced, I expected there to be a robust endorsement of HTS, not this. So I was surprised. What the statement says explicitly, and what it says between the lines, would be a real cold shower to me if I were in HTS, because it is asking the Army to justify a lot (and the fact that the Army’s assessment is months overdue is itself quite strange), or move on. Anyway, we’ll see, and the fact remains that there are and will be other forms of a human terrain program, even if not HTS itself.

      1. Keith Silverstein

        Max, this is my first time to post on this website and I’d like to thank all of the contributers; I think this site is wonderful.

        Unfortunately, I find little comfort in hearing the evaluation of the HTS program that was presented by the Committee. Open Congressional hearings are rarely anything except for the political constituent posturing with the intent to give headlines to those that need to remember why they supported their representative…I hope in this case I am wrong. One possibility that I see as leading to an end in funding to HTS is that many Generals would prefer more armaments. I say possibility because I haven’t heard this stated explicitly. I did listen to the recent House Armed Services Committee mark up though and have little doubt that this is true. In terms of lethality and liability I’m certain that the military command would prefer more unmanned aerial vehicles and more private sector support to conduct electronic warfare.

        The concept of human terrain programs doesn’t bother me as long as they publicly share the information (big laugh) and don’t utilize it to make military decisions (bigger laugh)….that would mean ending the military; I have no problem with keeping HTS and getting rid of the military.

        Again, thanks to you and John Stanton for the great work!

      2. Maximilian Forte

        Many thanks Keith, very interesting comments. Indeed, the HASC document as a whole seems to rebuff many of Robert Gates’ pet projects and plans. There is also a simultaneous, slow, almost quiet change occurring, away from the love for counterinsurgency which is increasingly being seen by many critics within the higher echelons of the political and military establishment as a costly and messy form of social engineering. Hence, a shift from COIN to what is newly in vogue, “tribal engagement” — tribal engagement in the sense of the U.S. operating at some remove, through local proxies. I think there are some who would prefer a combination of long-range, remote attacks via drone strikes, and working through proxies, rather than the on-the-ground and in-your-face option of COIN and HTS. That’s not an improvement! All I am saying is that there are shifts within the centre of power away from a love for HTS.

        The fact that HTS’ great defender, Gen. David Petraeus, is now all of a sudden the subject of newspaper articles suggesting he may run for president in 2012–and he does not deny it–might be a sign, planted from the top, of a distancing from Petraeus’ favourite projects. I would not be surprised if, for reasons relating to an electoral campaign, there were to be a great rush away from counterinsurgency, and toward proxy warfare, in time for 2012, to better serve the illusion of withdrawal from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Proxy wars–Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala–are never as politically costly to a regime as direct intervention with troops on the ground–Vietnam…and now Iraq and Afghanistan, unless it is an intervention with extremely narrow goals using overwhelming force–Grenada, Panama.

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  5. Barbara Miller

    Great to have the update and all the thoughtful comments. My question: Do you think what is going on in AFRICOM is an example of HTS attempting to morph into something more acceptable to anthropologists, through a name change and a mission statement tweak?

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Hello Barbara,

      Interesting coincidence…I just received two unclassified documents this week outlining the social science plans for AFRICOM, and wanted to write a note to present them on this site. It is a morphing of how social science will be used, that seems to be very conscious of the many criticisms of HTS. The people in charge are not HTS persons themselves. In addition, I have been privately contacted by a government official who is very keen to emphasize to me that the U.S. Army has another human terrain analysis branch that is separate from HTS. Some of the basic principles of HTS have been lifted in a sense, which is why I also suspect that HTS itself will soon be jettisoned altogether, for being such a public liability and a program that is no longer viewed as essential, even by those who share its goals.

      From another angle, and here people with an interest in media studies should be paying close attention, it seems that the dozens of favourable news articles in support of HTS, and its entire media strategy, are largely not paying off. There is a lesson here for those with an interest in “soft power,” “information operations,” and “strategic communications” — and it may be that the media, unlike the weapons of the weak, are the weak weapons of despairing elites. Just an hypothesis.

      Thanks for the visit and the comment.

  6. Stacie

    What does “limit the obligation of funding” mean? They’re no longer “obliged” to fund the program, to a limited(?) extent, until the completion of the assessment? But they might fund parts, or they might not? It’s odd phrasing, but they use it in other sections, so I’m assuming it means something specific.

    Also, what is “irregular warfare”? What is “regular” warfare?

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Welcome back Stacie!

      The language is ambiguous, and it is written by a committee…and meant to be valid only for the time being. One way to understand it might be to read it as what it is not saying–for example, it is not saying that the future of the program is guaranteed, and it is not saying that there will be an increase in funding, or that the funding will be continuous even in the short term. They may produce a glowing endorsement once they receive this “assessment,” but that is only if the assessment can manage to fly in the face of a mountain of evidence of wrongdoing and failure. The U.S. Army itself no longer has all its eggs in the HTS basket either.

      Regular warfare: blow shit up, kill them all, in broad daylight.
      Irregular warfare: blow shit up, kill a few, at night.

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  8. Keith Silverstein

    I’m wondering what the recent information released through the New York Times:

    U.S. Is Said to Expand Secret Actions in Mideast
    Published: May 24, 2010

    means in relation to the HTS program. For those not familiar with it you can read it here:

    It sounds very much like a wave of propaganda to soften the politically conscious class for a large scale war. The title of the article is misleading, because according to the article, the U.S. has expanded it’s secret actions beyond the Middle East .

    Another concern from the article is:

    “While the C.I.A. and the Pentagon have often been at odds over expansion of clandestine military activity, most recently over intelligence gathering by Pentagon contractors in Pakistan and Afghanistan, there does not appear to have been a significant dispute over the September [2009] order.”

    Well, what significant dispute could really be expected when it is a secret mission order being given by General Petraeus? I’ve heard this man being praised in Congress as if he could have taught Jesus a thing or two – by Republicans and Democrats. Had the decision faced the light of day and been put into the public debate there would have been a significant dispute. (I hope the American public is still just a little bit concerned about endless secret warfare)

    And speaking of Congress, again from the NYT article:

    “Unlike covert actions undertaken by the C.I.A., such clandestine activity does not require the president’s approval or regular reports to Congress, although Pentagon officials have said that any significant ventures are cleared through the National Security Council.”

    Oh, I feel better now knowing that the NSC is clearing the significant militarized spy missions…just like when Oliver North was clearing those missions in Nicaragua…I can hear the paper being shred in the background now.

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  10. Arthur

    Is the House Armed Services Committee conducting any interviews with HTS social scientists and other employees, either past or present, for its investigation? Seems to me that if all the committee works with are the senior managers in the directorates and their deputy managers, who in these types of organizations are typically careerist and have a stake in spinning their story to the committee, then the committee will never understand the scope of the problem–that is, if all that is being alleged by Stanton and others is correct. I sense from reading these stories that there is an overall problem of hostility and jealousy in HTS to social scientists, especially those with doctorates, who were told they would be able to conduct social science work and even publish their work in order to attract them to the program. Why doesn’t someone with academic credentials like Montgomery McFate stand up and fight for her social scientists and change the program in a way that attracts better-qualified future ones? Does she even care? In a university she’d be hung out to dry by her own faculty if she, in an administrative capacity, were that indifferent to faculty concerns. If what I suspect is true, then it seems through her own apparent indifference to social scientists and the kind of work they are supposed to do for the benefit of the military, she has actually abandoned the purpose of the HTS program itself.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Speaking for myself, I have no idea who or what the HASC is consulting for its deliberations. For a public body, presumably elected to serve citizens, it is not at all transparent. One also has to wonder to what extent private military contractors, like those clustered around HTS, have donated to the campaigns of the individuals on the HASC.

      As for McFate…have you read the language of her public presentations about HTS? It is almost entirely milspeak, repeating the jargon of the military, quite unlike what one would expect from an anthropologist. Why would she defend the interests of social scientists, when in her very rebuttals to anthropologists she will not even answer them in the same language. She has become fully militarized, despite her propaganda about anthropologizing the military.

      1. Arthur

        I’ll have to study her statements to academics more closely. If what you are saying is true, then what is it about her that has caused her to abandon apparently, in my opinion, the principles of her own professional credentials? Is there is more to this than just money?

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