Human Terrain System Video News: John Stanton, and the AGS Bowman Expeditions in Mexico

While still small, the number of YouTube videos that pertain in some way to the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System  (HTS) is growing, and one can find a neatly arranged selection (which for some reason bears the exact title of one of my articles), on the World News Network. I will focus on only two, having myself created and presented some of the others that are available and that already appeared in past posts.

John Stanton on the Human Terrain System

The first features our co-blogger and independent journalist, John Stanton, on Episode 9 of Russia Today’s Alyona Show, from 10 November 2009. This is the abridged version, focusing only the U.S. military and the Human Terrain System, and particularly this excellent interview with John. Take note of how Alyona introduces the Human Terrain System: she perfectly ridicules it as one of the latest in a series of “ridiculous” military projects designed to give the U.S. Army that extra little edge in battle, one of a number expensive projects manifesting “sheer stupidity,” a “useless” project, with its little colour-coded maps. Almost laughing out loud, she dismisses the notion of HTS as saving lives, and generally finds the use of anthropologists in battle zones to be preposterous. Brilliant.

Indigenous Peoples Against the Human Terrain System

The second video is very important indeed–indigenous peoples studying us, or specifically the Human Terrain System, anthropologists involved in supporting counterinsurgency, and the Bowman Expeditions of the American Geographical Society, in particular the México Indígena (Indigenous Mexico) project. The video is entirely in Spanish, consisting of a press conference, and I have provided an English translation of the complete video immediately below it, along with a good number of significant supporting links. It is especially important when we understand how both knowledge and fear of the Human Terrain System is spreading worldwide, the degree to which indigenous communities will hold us to our ethical promises, and the articulate opposition to the use of social science as part of a U.S. neoliberal and counterinsurgent strategy.

Preamble: 19 February 2009 — Press Conference of the Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juárez (Unión de Organizaciones de la Sierra Juárez [UNOSJO]) in which the “México Indígena” geographic project is discussed. This project took place in Oaxaca and San Luis Potosí, México, from 2005 as part of the Bowman Expeditions of the American Geographical Society (AGS) financed by the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) of the U.S. Department of Defense. The press conference deals with the following themes: research ethics; the ideological project of the Bowman Expeditions; the importance of the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO) in the choice of Oaxaca for study; and the ties between the Human Terrain System as a counterinsurgency strategy aiding the U.S. Army.


The theft of the traditional knowledge of the Zapotecas about their lands and territories, that we at UNOSJO have termed geopiracy, is part of a project called Mexico Indigena carried out in the Sierra Juárez. That project has unleashed an international debate on the ethics of social scientists intervening in indigenous communities. The words used in the aboriginal languages to name places, are part of the cultural and geographic knowledge of the land that our peoples have accumulated for thousands of years. The U.S. project, Mexico Indigena, indicates to us that the Americans understand the value of this knowledge, gathered by the aboriginal cultures, and for this reason they are so interested in researching human knowledge of the terrain, in Mexico and the rest of the world, as part of their foreign policy design.

After the publication of our first report in newspapers, magazines, and fora around the world, various discussions began on the question of ethics, primarily among U.S. academics, mostly anthropologists and geographers, who fear damage done to their discipline as a result of the actions of their colleagues at the University of Kansas. Point F of the Code of Ethics of the American Geographical Society (AGS) states: “No information will be acquired through deception or misrepresentation.” Point H states, “Sources of funding for AGS-sponsored expeditions will be made publicly transparent.”

We once again affirm that the people of the communities where the mapping project was undertaken, were not informed of the funding for the project by the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO), which belongs to the U.S. Department of Defense, nor were they informed of the managerial involvement of the private military contractor, Radiance Technologies. Also, the people did not know of the monthly reports on the research on their communities sent to the FMSO, which are only available online, on the Internet, and in English. This was also confirmed to us by the ex-President of the Commission of the Commonwealth of [San Juan] Yagila who served from 2006 to 2007. The team of geographers used the names of the community dwellers in Yagila–these–to illustrate how the location and distribution of individual parcels functions. In a paper written by [Jerome] Dobson, as a reaction to our aforementioned report, even he affirms that the people of Yagila expressly demanded that their names not be published.

However, they [Bowman Expedition] continue to use them in their presentations [he points to the screen], which they make public in different parts of the country and the world. In a recent publication of the AGS, of photos of the people in the communities, including some members of UNOSJO, and thus we have a clear violation of the Code of Ethics of that very same society. They did not ask us for permission to use these photos in their presentations [see links].

We consider their numerous violations of their own Code of Ethics are sufficiently grave and prejudicial to the interests of the indigenous villages and communities of Mexico, and that therefore the work of Mexico Indigena project of the AGS must be suspended, and they must withdraw, in order to be in compliance with their own principles.

From our organization, we issue a call to the indigenous villages and communities that they decide on the manner and nature of the investigations that are conducted, or not to be conducted, on their lands. They must ascertain who is doing the research, what the methods and objectives are, so that they do not continue being the object of study of arrogant researchers who in their supposed affinity for scientific research have lifted traditional knowledge from our communities in order to publish it with aims that divert from the interests of the indigenous villages and communities.

A team of geographers arrived at Oaxaca in the spring of 2006, to begin their research. This is the same time that the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO) was being formed. APPO is mentioned in the reports sent by the AGS Mexicon Indigena team to the FMSO. Also noted in the reports is that the people in the communities of Sogochi [?] and Yarabila [?] suspended their cooperation with the team of geographers, with the support of some APPO sympathizers.

If we look at the relationship between the FMSO and counterinsurgency, it does not therefore seem to be a coincidence that a team from AGS-Mexico Indigena arrived coincided with the emergence and growth of APPO in Oaxaca. This is especially alarming when we remember that the U.S. says that Mexicos is “unstable” and could be ripe for a U.S. intervention.

Other instances where we find the Bowman Expedition is in places where insurgency exists, and where the U.S. has strategic interests, such as Colombia, Kazakhstan, and Jordan. The FMSO Latin America expert who supervises the Bowman Expeditions–Geoff Demarest–has written on the privatization of lands in Colombia and Cuba, proclaiming that any country that does not formalize land ownership is opening itself to violence and tyranny. Demarest, a graduate of the School of the Americas, has a 23-year long military career, and he sees the question of land ownership as a key point in a strategy of counterinsurgency.

The research objective of AGS-Mexico Indigena focuses on the PROCEDE process of privatizing communal lands. In its PowerPoint presentation [behind him], they indicate that Oaxaca is one of the last enclaves in Mexico that has failed to enter the privatization process (PROCEDE). The data produced by PROCEDE shows that only 30% of Oaxaca has entered this program of privatization, while in other areas we can see that almost all have entered the program. Thus, Oaxaca is a place of high interest for those studying this subject.

The ideological project of the Bowman Expeditions, as we mentioned previously, consists of the privatization of communal lands as part of a strategy of neoliberalism and counterinsurgency, on a scope going beyond Mexico and other countries.

Our mention of the Human Terrain System, a counterinsurgency strategy of the U.S. Army, caused a lot of noise in media around the world, and contributed to the debates especially between U.S. anthropologists, debates that were already taking place around this theme. The idea behind the Human Terrain System consists of employing social scientists, and especially anthropologists, who can also process geographic information, to improve the efficacy of U.S. Army efforts. For their work, Human Terrain Teams use a global database called the World Basic Information Library (WBIL), which is located in this place [points to map]. The WPIL was created in 1997 to serve the FMSO, the U.S. Army, and various intelligence agencies with analyses of the political, military, and economic structures of any country in the world.

While we are not claiming that the Bowman Expeditions are part of the Human Terrain System, we do argue that the information gathered by the Bowman Expeditions is supplied to the WBIL. The U.S. Army’s Human Terrain Teams could then access this information in order to plan military operations or enter into public policy planning. The Bowman Expeditions themselves are funded by the FMSO. This same agency manages the WBIL as it also manages the Human Terrain System, which we assume to be an integral part of the same strategy.

If the Bowman Expeditions wish to continue insisting that their project has nothing to do with the Human Terrain System, then we demand that the FMSO demonstrate the data gathered by the expeditions in the Sierra Juárez will not be furnished to the WBIL, and thus that they open the WBIL to us so that we can have access [and monitor if this information has been supplied]. In addition, we ask for a detailed list of all the institutions and corporations that have access to the data gathered by Bowman’s Mexico Indigena project.

Thank you for your kind attention, we will now take your questions.


  • PowerPoint presentation, parts of which appear in the video of the press conference above:
    PDF slides , original PPT

News articles resulting from the press conference:

  • JORNADA (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México): 28 March 2009, “Geopiratería militar,” by Silvia Ribeiro

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7 thoughts on “Human Terrain System Video News: John Stanton, and the AGS Bowman Expeditions in Mexico

  1. PJ

    On a different note: It appears that we are assuming the investigation into HTS by the House A/ S/ Committee is serious. Perhaps it is but I suspect not. I called my congressman on the committee and my message was passed on (allegedly via answering machine) to his right hand assistant. Neither my emails nor my telephone calls were answered, although they contained important information. If the House was serious about an investigation, they would interview past and current HTT members – who were and weren’t deployed about their training, reasons for staying or leaving, experience during deployment, and a load of other questions. Alternatively, they could take a random sample of the same populations and that would provide some insight. Instead, they appear to be interviewing upper level management whose members have a stake in reproducing the same old spin.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      That’s clearly a very important observation, “they appear to be interviewing upper level management whose members have a stake in reproducing the same old spin.” The more that time passes, and with the fact that the process is virtually a secret to the public, the more questions we have. John himself seems to doubt that this will be much more than a wrist-slapping exercise at best. I tended to see the decline in stated enthusiasm as significant. I may turn out to be the one who was more easily fooled by the theatre–it would indeed be a very clever way to save and ensure the continuation of a controversial program, by at least putting on a show of skepticism, coolness, and detachment. In the end, as I said elsewhere here, regardless of what happens to HTS as such, the HTS-like programs continue elsewhere in the Pentagon. In a way, our intense focus on HTS in anthropology–and I am certainly a guilty party here–has facilitated the relative lack of critical discussion of the many other “questionable” uses of academics (apart from Minerva), and anthropologists in particular, across the military and intelligence agencies, with the exception of David Price’s significant exposure of the various intelligence scholars programs in recent years.

      1. PJ

        Good point re other questionable use of social scientists. There is one difference in view of the fact that we live in a democracy and people of any expertise will chose to work in one or another capacity that others disagree. I suspect that some of these other military “programs” that use social scientists aren’t deceptive in how they present their role and the jobs involved. They don’t, for example, pretend to be independent of “Intel.” Some also probably use social scientists who are already part of the military and thus perceive of themselves as working for the military rather than being the voice of the people of Iraq or Afghanistan (the spin-illusion that HTT presents in its efforts to recruit social scientists). Other internal military programs also may not pretend to gather data that will be used exclusively for non kinetic purposes, a stated goal of HTT that puts their more conscientious social scientists in ethical dilemmas when they come to realize that the information they gather can be used in any way or that the team members with whom they work do not agree to conceal information that they (the social scientists) think should be concealed because it endangers innocent locals in the population. This goes one step beyond the obvious – that even the most earnest HTT team members cannot protect the people who give them information from others in the local population, some of whom are rivals or members of one or another terrorist organization, who do not want them talking to representatives of the military. The perfect example of the latter, was your report on the lunatic “oil spill” theory by someone who had no anthropological experience or knowledge. Had they had an anthropologist or even a special forces members on their team (I’m surprised the Ranger didn’t, himself, object), they would have realized the risks involved for those members of the local population who first agreed to cooperate.

        I happen to read one of the more bizarre papers written by M. McFate in which she calls for in depth cultural research to be done in combat zones to aid the military. The very idea of HTT teams conducting in depth research is ludicrous. 1. The training at Leavenworth teaches the very opposite coupled with some totally ludicrous methods that no one would use even if they could and one week of network analysis that, if used, could be dangerous in view of the tendency to link casual meetings of individuals to the political equivalent of love 2. As you have pointed out in multiple columns, few “social scientists”
        have PhDs. 3. Fewer still have PhDs in relevant fields. 4. Even fewer have
        ever conducted ethnographic research. 5. I do not know her history but I question whether McFate knows what participant observation is. 6. I don’t know the other social scientist(s) working in management but I doubt he or she has a PhD in cultural anthropology.

  2. Arthur

    Dear PJ:

    Certain things you write intrigue me. So I hope you don’t mind my asking a couple of questions.

    First, you write about ethical dilemmas and of people not being able to control how the research is used by other people on the team or by the military command itself. What would it take for an HTS team to all agree to not compromise the research, as, for example, a biomedical research team would be bound to agree in high-risk studies? Could HTS and its employees who violate such principles be sanctioned? That’s what IRB regulation is for. Is HTS capable of adhering to IRB regulatory standards of research ethics? In thinking about this I can’t help but think of my earlier questioning of Mr. Stanton, about identity crisis. If all people on a team hold clashing perceptions of what HTS is, then it stands to reason that their conception of what research is and is for will differ, too. In turn, their sense of research ethics will differ. I am willing to bet that this identity clash is a prime source of internal conflict in the program.

    Second, you question whether social scientists besides McFate who work in management have cultural anthropology degrees. Why should that matter if HTS is no longer an anthropology-only program? Is that because the social scientists are expected to conduct primarily qualitative research, something anthropologists are professionally good at? What is so special about cultural anthropologists that distinguishes them from other types? Is there something in the way they are educated that makes them different than other types of anthropologists? Also, you mention the PhD as a credential. I have read that there aren’t many PhDs in HTS, which implies to me that perhaps HTS doesn’t think PhDs are all that important. Should they be, if they are not already? What is so special about a PhD? What differentiates a PhD from someone with only an MA or MS? If the mission is really intel, as so many have suggested, do you need a PhD for that? To some people this emphasis on the doctorate smacks of pure snobbery. Evidently you don’t agree. Maybe you could help us understand.

  3. PJ

    Dear Arthur,
    Your questions are on the money and would require a long discussion with a number of people to fully explore. I therefore do not have definitive answers but only some thoughts.
    l. Your first questions relate to creating teams (and I believe there have been a few) that make decisions as a team, considering everyone’s opinion and expertise, the pros and cons of particular missions, and dangers to personnel on the team and also relevant human subjects. In order to maximize the possibility of creating such teams there must be proper screening and selection of candidates and socialization of candidates into shared notions of the HTT mission and its goals and the idea of what it means to protect human subjects in a war zone, to work in a war zone, and to function as a team. From what I hear, there is currently little screening of either social scientists or military personnel and no training in the areas mentioned above.
    2. The social scientist and team leader must be of equal rank so that their opinions are respected with team leaders given administrative responsibility for certain aspects of team functioning that aren’t within the social scientists expertise. Social scientist should have the major responsibility for questions surrounding the research. Other members of the team must also have a voice in regards to their knowledge and expertise and be empowered within the team, creating loyalty to the team and the mission. I have heard cases where extremely bright and knowledgeable research managers have been left out by social scientists and team members when they could have made major contributions to the social science aspect of the team endeavor. Some of this would require training involving team exercises and decision making, similar to what is done for relevant teams in the military but orientated towards the HTT mission. Individuals who repeatedly display, during training, contempt for local populations, do not understand the mission, have no understanding of notions of ethnocentrism, can’t for the life of them understand why the Iraqi and/or other relevant locals don’t love the Americans for “saving them” should be interviewed by management and possibly let go. Social scientists who can not be made to understand notions of working as a team and treating others with respect in terms of what they know should also be interviewed and let go. There should be multiple exercises involving social scientists and team leaders working together.
    2. IRB and HTT. I do not think it is possible to protect human subjects while doing research in a war zone. I do think it is possible to develop protocols, utilizing past cases to teach some of the dangers involved both to the population and to the team itself. In addition, HTT social scientist should have the right to refuse questionable assignments which they believe will compromise their ethics and have the support not only of their teams but also their brigade commanders. Team members would also be attuned to these dangers and forced to develop ways to manage them to minimize risk to themselves and others. The only human subjects that could be guaranteed protection in terms of IRB might be detainees. I do not know whether HTT does detainee studies. HTT should reduce its numbers significantly (or better yet disband completely) and only be deployed as top notch fully functioning teams to brigade commanders who understand their mission and want them as part of their command and who have battalion commanders who also want to use them in their missions, assuming the teams do not prove to be a detriment. Mr. Stanton’s comments regarding clashing ideology and identity crisis appear, from what I have heard, to be accurate… but the training does nothing but aggravate these tensions rather the produce teams with shared notion of mission. I suspect that these conflicts then get exacerbated downrange. I gather that social scientists are dissed from day one by middle level managers as well as some but not all persons in the military while team leaders are viewed with respect. This only aggravates insecurity and tensions and reinforces stereotypes and disrespect.
    3. I don’t think a PhD in cultural anthropology is necessary for HTT social scientist members. In view of the kind of work they do, I am not yet convinced it couldn’t be done by Special Forces. On the other hand if HTT wants to live up the hype they need qualified social scientists. Individuals who are experts in the Middle East, sociologists and anthropologists and those with mixed degrees who have cultural/social knowledge, have completed a body of original research (the PhD dissertation based on fieldwork and/or a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods), are generally best qualified for HTT missions. The exception would be individuals with MA in Middle Eastern studies who have language expertise. Sociologists and anthropologists trained in ethnography and qualitative methods are socialized into understanding notions of cultural relativism and ethnocentrism from day one of graduate school. They come to really understand these notions when they do their own fieldwork. That is also when they begin to understand the complexities of the ethical dilemmas they face in dealing with human subjects. Many will also have completed human subjects forms and have a better idea of what those forms demand. Fast forward to high risk research in a war zone….. the complexities of which have only just begun to be written about by anthropologists who are not part of HTT.
    4. The PhD is only important in so far as it provides evidence that a certain degree of methodological and cultural learning has taken place for those in relevant fields. It is also important because I suspect it, combined with appropriate rank, brings respect to those who work in military environment and understand the relevant informal rules of that environment. No there aren’t many PhDs in HTT from what I understand, although there are a few Middle Eastern specialists. What PhD in their right mind is going to participate in a program that has had such mixed reviews and ethical quandaries unless they are very young, Middle Eastern specialists who want to work in Afghanistan and Iraq, experts in terrorism who want to understand its roots and our response, or social scientists at the end of their careers who want to try something new and/or escape something bad? HTT advertises that participants can write books/papers regarding their experience so that is another motivation. It’s not easy to gain access to research in a war zone and that is part of the attraction of HTT to those who would like to explore that environment or are curious about the military, itself, as a subject of research.
    5. I believe the HTT mission is Intelligence. This is why I think that Special Forces operators and other military composed teams who receive really good training in COIN and notions of cultural relativism and ethnocentrism would, in fact, do the HTT mission without social scientists. I should mention that some individuals who have been members of teams and are retired military disagree and argue that, in the best cases of the few really good teams, social scientists (in this case middle eastern experts) have added a crucial dimension to their work.
    6. Finally I am in agreement with the American Anthropological Association and similar organizations. There can be no informed consent in a war zone. The ethical quandaries are, at present, insurmountable. Those social scientists who choose to be involved with HTT must think very carefully about what they are doing and why and whether they can operate in an environment that is not only hostile to them but in which much of what they have learned may not be understood or respected by those with whom they work and also by the current HTT management. If they choose to participate in HTT, they should understand that they are gathering intelligence on local populations. The exception might be serious research on detainees that attempts to explore socialization into terrorism and whether or not American presence has been a major catalysts in increasing the terrorist ranks.
    7. My apologies for not fully answering your questions. I have only provided opinion based on what I have heard not what I know for sure.

  4. Arthur

    Dear PJ:

    Wow. I really appreciate your response. You obviously have been seriously considering HTS problems for a long time. Do I understand you correctly that HTS tells its social scientists recruits that they may produce research for publication? I have scoured the academic abstracts looking for such work and have not seen any that indicates the research was conducted while working for HTS. I have found papers in military trade journals and other organizational papers that are not peer-reviewed. If HTS is not really producing much that is publishable then is it doing anything that might be just “scholarly” and that draws upon their prior knowledge, perhaps? Is there evidence of that?

  5. PJ

    What is advertised in recruitment documents regarding writing and publication does not necessarily conform to what HTT personnel come to understand in terms of their informal socialization in which writing and publication are discouraged. I suspect some of the reasons we have not yet read articles in scholarly journals by HTT personnel are l. concerns about security clearance issues – no one in their right mind would want to write an honest article/book while still working for HTT because of a possible conflict of interest and requirement such a document go through various censors (not stated in advertisements) 2. desire not to have names publicly associated with a controversial program 3. a wish to gain distance from an experience that wasn’t positive. 4. the desire not to malign HTT. One former HTT person once indicated that s/he’d been asked to co-author paper and declined because that person had nothing good to say about HTT – that is another reason. 5. It takes time to write articles and/or books and it may take some time before they appear.

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