A Major Report of a Minor Exception, or a Minor Report of a Major Problem? The American Anthropological Association’s CEAUSSIC vis-à-vis the Human Terrain System–Part 2


We continue the discussion of the American Anthropological Association’s Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the U.S. Security and Intelligence Communities (CEAUSSIC) which released its “Final Report on the Army’s Human Terrain System Proof of Concept Program,” in early December of 2009. Though not a comprehensive summary, nor a thorough analysis of what is at the very least a very large report, select themes of especial importance to Zero Anthropology are the focus of this two-part commentary. We continue by taking up the subject of “intelligence,” then look at ethics and politics, and end with some concluding observations.


One of the key debates about the purpose of HTS was whether or not it served as an intelligence program, or more simply as cultural analysis. The CEAUSSIC report casts considerable doubt on the notion that HTS can be viewed as something distinct and separate from intelligence work. The report refers to “a number of accounts from government insiders suggesting that the initial idea for some sort of human terrain program grew out of a growing recognition of the need to build up precisely that aspect of intelligence collection and analysis” (p. 41). The report also notes HTS spokespersons describing to CEAUSSIC their effort to “fight hard to keep this program open rather than a part of G2 Intelligence”—a bit of a slip, as the report authors noted the implication here, “that from the beginning some were pushing for HTS to be a military intelligence asset” (p. 39).

The idea that HTS can maintain itself separate from intelligence activities is also doubted by CEAUSSIC, noting that in the field, open data collection and intelligence collection are very close and even “hopelessly entangled”—they quote one observer: “Everyone talks to everyone else out here” (p. 39). The proximity can be seen in more direct ways as well. The Commission found that at least “one deployed HTS social scientist was in fact physically located in the intelligence fusion center” (p. 41). As at least one report explained, in early 2007 HTTs were “hastily installed in the brigade’s intelligence section” (p. 39).The G-2 section in which HTS belongs, is part of Army intelligence combat staff, and the Army intelligence manual requires intelligence staff “to become experts in cultural terrain and to provide commanders with cultural analysis” (p. 41).

Intelligence as tied to lethal targeting has also been one of the recurring issues of concern regarding HTS. HTS spokespersons have repeatedly asserted that HTS data has not been used for targeting purposes. Yet CEAUSSIC says, “at least some statements by HTS social scientists support critics’ claims that HTS data can be utilized for such ends” (p. 40). One program manager at HTS, familiar with how it began to take shape early on, noted that “it was all about getting after high value targets” (p. 38). Another, speaking of HTS at present, noted that, “all [HTS] analysts are coming out of the intel community” (p. 38). The report also says that several people have suggested, “They [HTS representatives] are not even pretending anymore…When asked, [they say], ‘Yes, we’re supporting the intelligence community’” (p. 38). The tactical role of HTS also suggests a potential for supporting lethal operations—CEAUSSIC quotes an insider saying, “We describe the environment that the bad guys operate in, [and] build a foundation for units so they can understand their area,” and that elsewhere it is an effort “to figure out if the Taliban are living in the village or to find out where they might be” (p. 30).

The official definition of “intelligence,” as provided in JP 2-0, the doctrinal source providing “fundamental principles and guidance for intelligence support to joint operations,” does not help clarify distinctions, CEAUSSIC notes, quoting the document’s definition:

Intelligence. The product resulting from the collection, processing, integration, evaluation, analysis, and interpretation of available information concerning foreign nations, hostile or potentially hostile forces or elements, or areas of actual or potential operations.  The term is also applied to the activity which results in the product and to the organizations engaged in such activity.” (p. 38)

As CEAUSSIC states, “this makes it appear that intelligence is pretty much any form of knowledge production” (p. 38). It is difficult to resolve the matter, especially when it comes to how the program is funded, which would tell us more about its purposes. CEAUSSIC here observes that “since the intelligence budget is classified, if HTS does receive any funding from these programs, it is unlikely this information will ever be made public” (p. 19), and in fact there is “no publicly available comprehensive documentation on the sources of funding HTS currently has or is seeking” (p. 18). Instead, what CEAUSSIC had were bits and pieces of suggestive evidence, beginning with HTS being initially funded by the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), and an itemization of the congressional 2008 Global War on Terror Amendment that listed the funding of “additional human terrain teams” as part of funding for “military intelligence” with $90.6 million authorized in the National Defense Authorization act for 2009, under the subcommittee that is concerned with “unconventional threats” (p. 18).

The report puts the matter succinctly:

“the [HTS] program is housed within a DoD intelligence asset, that it has reportedly been briefed as such an asset, and that a variety of circumstances of the work of Human Terrain Teams (HTTs) ‘on the ground’ in Iraq and Afghanistan create a significant likelihood that HTS data will in some way be used as part of military intelligence, advertently or inadvertently.” (p. 4)

Ethics and the Politics that Make Ethical Questions Possible

The report does not provide a clear picture of those sitting at the opposite end, those who joined HTS, apart from the total number of people employed, and the numbers with degrees in anthropology (p. 13). This is not CEAUSSIC’s fault of course; they were not provided with detailed team demographics (p. 49). Nonetheless, some information is available, usually provided by HTS members themselves.

An issue that the report could have raised is that of the ideological disposition, political entanglements, and cultural attitudes of some HTS employees that, to say the least, give cause for great concern. One, as regular readers know, is Audrey Roberts, who serves in an international association of mercenaries. Another, who markets herself as the psychoanalyst of Islam, dubbed the “Dr. Ruth of Counter-Terrorism” by David Horowitz’s extremist right wing Frontpage Mag, is Nancy Kobrin, who declared:

“I believe that there are millions upon millions of moderate Muslims but Islam itself is not moderate….the world-wide Muslim community unwittingly and wittingly engages in passive terrorism. All too often they can too easily hide behind the mask of peace and let the jihadis do the dirty work. This is not acceptable and they need to be called on it.”

Islam = terror. That is some fine social science, and really well suited for the pages of Frontpage Mag. Rafael Fermoselle’s comment on this blog, that gained wider attention, where he said “these insurgents are throwbacks to the Stone Age,” also betrays a Eurocentric, and simply ethnocentric mindset, not someone you want “producing knowledge” that is to be passed off as “credible”. Then there are those who have been accused of sexual harassment and even child molestation.

The key point here is that clearly some HTS members had no concern whatsoever with the idea of “do no harm,” and their very deployment was an act of doing harm. This, as I said, is something the report does not raise.

Indeed, the very phrase “do no harm,” seems to have worked as an open invitation to all those who wish to reduce the principle to its most immediate, direct, particular, and procedural dimensions. “I am asking you questions, and I promise to do no harm, and so I will keep your identity a secret”. But what if we then add, “and my research here is to help my country gain power over yours, so that we may better and more efficiently control your destiny, and if you help me then we probably won’t need to kill as many of your cousins”? What happens to “do no harm” when we go beyond the ethics of the nanosecond, to ethical discussions placed within a larger political context? Or is it the assumption that Afghan villagers only hear the questions, and do not see who the questioner is, and wonder what he/she is doing in their village? The killing of HTS employees in Iraq and Afghanistan, one happening in a very direct, face-to-face manner, ought to have highlighted the fact that those villagers see beyond the lesser ethics of the research process, to the greater ethics of the context that deploys researchers against them. It’s not just research, and certainly not “humanitarianism,” when it comes in the form of a heavily armed military patrol stomping through your village. This problem, that of downplaying the wider geopolitical context, does not go away with HTS; indeed, it comes right back in with AFRICOM’s SCRATs, some of whose members are bound to learn some painful lessons if they ignore these ones.

The CEAUSSIC report does in fact raise these issues, that is, “whether or not individual members of different HTTs understand that, for better or worse, when embedded they are directly and indirectly representing the U.S. military presence there” (p. 24). Their claim to objectivity is radically compromised: “If they choose to ignore their immediate surroundings in the name of objective field work, this suggests an unrealistic appraisal of the context of field work. If they embrace the fact that they are in fact conducting field work in a tension-ridden conflict zone, and on behalf of a particular combatant, this, in turn, raises questions about the feasibility of such work” (p. 24). It is an observation that anthropologists can (ought to) make, but also one that some in the military make—according to the report one Marin brigade commander made the following remark about a HTT working on a survey in Ramadi, Iraq: “When you go out with a bunch of uniforms, this makes the survey something else. You begin to start to look like you are trying to influence a certain outcome. It looks more like push polling” (p. 25).

Similarly, CEAUSSIC quotes Major Ben Connable, who also appears to have a sharper understanding of the political context in which HTS members work, than some of its defenders:

“The decision to do research on a particular topic or in a particular place might be an individual choice of research design by the HTT member, but might also be perceived as evidence of U.S. interests or intents by local people, with resulting unintended and even lethal consequences.” (p. 49).

Even from a minimalist point of view, CEAUSSIC remains unconvinced that HTS is following a well-defined ethical framework and with the “inability of HTT researchers to maintain reliable control over data once collected, the program places researchers and their counterparts in the field in harm’s way” (p. 4). CEAUSSIC also concludes that “fundamental concern for at least the AAA’s Code of Ethics (CoE) appeared to be have been ignored by HTS personnel when designing the program; among these are concerns that relate to: the establishment of voluntary informed consent, taking care to insure that no harm comes to research participants as a result of HTS research, and full disclosure to research participants what will be done with collected data” (p. 45).

The report also notes how HTS shifts its identity when addressing different audiences, has ambiguous or unknown sources of funding, and does not readily clarify its role as either research or intelligence. CEAUSSIC looks to HTS’ training program, and finds:

“Training in ‘research methods’ for HTTs is notable insofar as it combines what appears to be field-based social scientific data collection (e.g. use of ethnography of the anthropological sort) with instrumental or soft power goals of ‘shaping the environment.’ This raises a number of concerns regarding the separability, and so ethics, of the research component from the strategic, tactical, and operational goals of military decision-makers, and the role of HTT activities with respect to the goals of these decision-makers.” (p. 21)

The training curriculum itself, according to a HTS insider, “was put together in ad hoc fashion by a retired colonel with no social science background” (p. 21). Some of the instructors came from a marketing background (p. 21).

CEAUSSIC concludes that HTS “potentially operates under a state of exception” (p. 51). They note, “HTS does not currently use an IRB. As a research program, it would therefore be out of compliance” but that some in HTS seem to claim that it does not need to submit to an IRB process, while the program responded that a “Judge Advocate General is currently reviewing this matter” (p. 51). There was also the claim that HTS had formed an Ethics Working Group, whose ethics guidelines would be available for release back in 2009 (p. 51), and we have heard no further. The CEAUSSIC report itself was issued near the end of 2009.

Conclusion: Putting Out the Smoke

As mentioned under “The Critics” in Part 1, the end result of this report is to marginalize HTS as neither anthropological, nor a suitable example of what military anthropology should be, using the expert opinion of both anthropological investigators—the members of CEAUSSIC—and military insiders. CEAUSSIC states quite clearly: “HTS cannot, therefore, be characterized simply as composed of anthropologists or as a military program to recruit anthropologists” (p. 14). Throughout the report, using the voices of others, HTS’ version of ethnography is varyingly characterized, if not caricatured, as “rapid ethnographic research,” “combat ethnography,” and “windshield ethnology.” On one page, the report plainly demystifies any assumed anthropology in HTS:

“It is not clear, in sum, if the overall goal of the HTS program to provide cultural insight to military commanders in the field, or if activities of data collection of HTTs in the field, can be responsibly described as ‘anthropology.’ First, there are in fact relatively few PhD-level anthropologists who are a part of the program. Second, multiple sources have been clear that HTS, as a program, does not particularly care whether their recruits are in fact anthropologists. It is enough that they have a background in the social sciences of some sort. Perhaps most importantly, several present and former HTT social scientists are unequivocal about the fact that the work of HTTs is not really compatible with that of professional anthropology. As an HTT social scientist deployed in Iraq in 2008 noted as part of an interview, ‘The HTT does not do anthropology! That’s not the purpose…You can’t do anthropology at the end of a gun. It’s not anthropology. It’s impossible! So why do anthropologists care?’ As one Marine commander who worked with an HTT in Iraq noted, ‘Even when they want to go out, they don’t do classical anthropological research. So that’s off the table…It’s a combat zone, and when you’re in uniform you have all the coercive force of the U.S. government’.” (p. 52)

The theme, “HTS is not anthropology” is repeated throughout the report in many different ways, which I will not list here. And it should: I do not want my work to be confused with the work of those who come out with statements such as “the green layer is the civilian population.”

So why then is CEAUSSIC really concerned? Indeed, why care? My view is that CEAUSSIC was concerned that a larger project could be damaged, the project to which a number of its members belonged, that being military anthropology itself. CEAUSSIC expresses this worry almost as many times as it insists that HTS is not anthropology, that some damage may be done by those who see the two as related, including if not especially within the Pentagon itself:

“military clients downrange routinely refer to HTT social scientists as ‘anthropologists.’…And ‘HTS has become synonymous with anthropology in DoD, and it is DoD that has all the money.’…notoriety is shaping prevailing wisdom about what anthropology is and what the role of anthropology should be among military and security policy makers, in ways that might very well be to the detriment of everyone else, or other more constructive arrangements, collaborations, and ethical applications of anthropological practice and knowledge.” (p. 54).

“As we hope the body of this report makes apparent,” CEAUSSIC says, “in different ways the HTS program appears to operate in a state of exception, from the discipline of anthropology but also from other programs in the military. The program is not, in our view, particularly representative, therefore, of the way that anthropology, at least, can most constructively engage with the military” (p. 55).

From one vantage point, it seems that CEAUSSIC sought to quell a disturbance—eliminating HTS as a cause for further concern among anthropologists, because it is not anthropological, and steering military anthropology toward other engagements that are less politically costly to both anthropology and the military.

CEAUSSIC may well have succeeded in putting out the smoke, and not the fire. The real problem, that of militarized anthropology, of the military in anthropology, and anthropologists recruited by the military, and other forms of “attached” and “non-oppositional” engagements with the military (to reverse the polarity of CEAUSSIC’s terminology) is precisely the fire that will continue to occupy us here.

This article is the final one of the following series on the Human Terrain System, and related topics (those marked with “” are those articles that were planned well in advance of their publication as part of the series):

  1. 02 February 2010: Bibliography and Archive: The Military, Intelligence Agencies, and the Academy (with special reference to anthropology) – Documents, News, Reports – subsequent updates to be found here.
  2. 28 February 2010 (with subsequent updates): Mapping the Terrain of War Corporatism: The Human Terrain System within the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex.
  3. 04 March 2010: Multiplying Human Terrain Dreams of Victory and Fortune.
  4. 19 March 2010: Information Traffickers of the Imperial State: American Anthropologists and Other Academics.
  5. 27 March 2010: AFRICOM, Human Terrain, Empire, and Anthropology.
  6. 27 March 2010: Mercenary Humanism.
  7. 27 March 2010: CIA Feminism.
  8. 04 April 2010: 100 percent (Militarized) American.
  9. 20 May 2010: Imperial Instruction: The Human Terrain System’s Academic Trainers, Part 1.
  10. 20 May 2010: Imperial Instruction: The Human Terrain System’s Academic Trainers, Part 2.
  11. 21 May 2010: Human Terrain System Criticized by U.S. Congress.
  12. 28 May 2010: Time Line and FAQ for the Human Terrain System and Responses by the Network of Concerned Anthropologists and the American Anthropological Association.
  13. 29 May 2010: The Pentagon’s “Other” Human Terrain System?
  14. 29 May 2010: Changing Fortunes in Washington: The Evolution of House Armed Services Committee Reports on the Human Terrain System.
  15. 30 May 2010: SCRATs: AFRICOM after the Human Terrain System.
  16. 03 June 2010: Human Terrain System Video News: John Stanton, and the AGS Bowman Expeditions in Mexico.
  17. 07 June 2010: A Major Report of a Minor Exception, or a Minor Report of a Major Problem? The American Anthropological Association’s CEAUSSIC vis-à-vis the Human Terrain System, Part 1.
  18. 07 June 2010: A Major Report of a Minor Exception, or a Minor Report of a Major Problem? The American Anthropological Association’s CEAUSSIC vis-à-vis the Human Terrain System, Part 2.

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