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Why I’m through with sitting down at academic conferences with military scholars who won’t go on the record

Case Western Breakdown

by DAVID PRICE

Social scientists and other scholars critical of the rapid cooption of our disciplines by military and intelligence agencies face increasing problems engaging in critical academic discourse with colleagues working in militarized settings.  The biggest obstacle to these interactions is the rising prevalence of conditions of non-transparency unusual for academic exchanges.

Because I write about historical and current interactions between anthropologists and military and intelligence agencies—for CounterPunch and academic books and journals—I am regularly asked to make a presentation at conferences addressing current efforts to militarize the social sciences.  Throughout the last decade I have developed my own standards governing whether or not I interact with military anthropologists or military and intelligence personnel at such conferences or other settings.  My chief condition is to insist on normal standards of academic transparency and accountability.  Because accountability is a foundation of academic discourse, I do not attend events governed by non-disclosure agreements, or non-attribution agreements.  Sometimes symposia are able to meet these simple standards and I engage with individuals from military or intelligence agencies; sometimes they are cannot, in which case I chose to not participate.

Here’s one of many examples of how I work through, whether or not I will attend an event. In 2007 I was approached by Stuart Brand’s GBN Group with an invitation to join a panel GBN was facilitating at a national conference of intelligence analysts from a variety of U.S. intelligence agencies held at Ft. Meade.  The panel was slated to discuss issues relating to open source intelligence and problems with intelligence agencies using anthropological information.  As a vocal critic of the CIA, FBI and NSA’s history, current methods and politics I was extremely skeptical, but not being one to shy away from opportunities to engage with those I criticize, I did not outright reject the invitation so long as basic conditions of normal academic transparency could be maintained.

I told the organizers that I was willing to participate so long as there were no restrictions on what I said, that I was not required to sign nondisclosure or non-attribution agreements, that I could post my remarks online, and could likewise freely report what had transpired at the conference.  I made it clear that my remarks would probably sound like a spanking to those in attendance and would be talking about the damaging and blinding features of our intelligence agencies fetishization of classified sources.  I was told by the organizers that they knew this and they were looking for the sort of honest critique that could only come from the outside.  Discussions moved forward, but in the end, intelligence agency officials could not abide by my insistence that if I were going to engage with these intelligence agencies I needed to be able to write later about what was discussed at this conference, and as those hosting the conference could not meet my requirements I chose to not participate in this event.

During the last decade I have withdrawn from invitations at several universities where I would have had opportunities to talk with or debate military and intelligence personnel, but the presence of non-attribution policies (such as the Chatham House Rule) governing interactions prevented my participation.  These non-attribution policies are generally pitched as providing increased “freedom of exchange,” but functionally they provide participants with levels of non-accountability that should be shunned from normal academic environments.  At these academic and military exchanges, these military-aligned anthropologists often have a tendency to represent themselves as marginalized victims or as needing unusual assurances of non-attribution.

I reject such special protections for those who are part of the largest, most lethal, military force on the planet; I have a difficult time conceiving of people aligned with such power as marginalized or needing special protections.  They need to be on the record, and their words need the same distribution as those of everyone else in the room.  I see any agreement that shields participants from public accountability as lending a helping hand to powerful military or intelligence organizations that want to avoid public accountability.  Whatever the arguments supporting these practices, non-attribution, non-disclosure policies and other practices that reduce disclosure of military-aligned scholars’ statements become means for military scholars to duck under normal standards of academic transparency and accountability.

While it is common for most anthropologists to avoid interactions with military and intelligence agencies requiring non-disclosure agreements, not all anthropologists, even progressive or radical anthropologists, adopt my standards opposing non-attribution agreements.  In instances where scholars are studying the military, it may make sense for them to adopt the sort of non-attribution standards that any anthropologists would use with a community they are studying, but I always undertake these interactions not as instances of study, but as academic enterprises requiring people to be accountable for what they say.

I have not shied away from engaging or debating anthropologists and other social scientists working with military or intelligence agencies in open settings, but I am increasingly skeptical about the use and value of such engagements—and as I increasingly encounter special treatment or nonacademic expectations surrounding these interactions, I wonder about the propriety of these interactions.  My most recent experience in trying to engage in an open discussion with militarized anthropologists, discussed below, pushes me closer to advocating that I and my colleagues should stop wasting our time talking with those working in these constrained environments.

On September 23, 2011, I participated in Case Western Reserve University’s Law School symposium on “The University and National Security after 9/11.”  This was a small daylong symposium that included a continuing legal education session featuring a chilling talk by Joseph Margulies on post-9/11 shifts in abuses of public framing of concepts of the rule of law, and an outstanding keynote address by AAUP President Cary Nelson, on “How the Culture of Surveillance and Security Has Saturated The Culture of Higher Education.”  Over a month before the event, all participants were asked to sign and submit a standard media release waiver allowing taping and posting online of the symposium.  The event had large cameras filming and streaming the symposium (lawyers could get continuing legal education credits for attending some of the sessions in person or online) and we were all told the sessions would be available online.  I checked a week after the event and all the sessions were available online.

Two weeks ago I received an email inquiry from my friend and colleague, anthropologist Maximilian Forte, asking me if I knew anything about the removal of the online video from my symposium session.  When I looked online, I found that the session in which I had presented my critique of the military’s Human Terrain program was the only one of three sessions and keynote address which were not up and running on Case Western’s website.

I emailed my hosts at Case Western to ask if they knew why this video was removed, and the reply from Alice Simon, Manager, Communications, informed me that the video had been removed by the University.  Ms Simon wrote that,

 “while we prefer to webcast all of our programs live and archive them on our website, our guests have the choice to opt out if that is necessary for any reason. A member of Panel II did opt out of webcasting. It was my error that the panel was webcast live and posted online. I should have had our A-V department stop webcasting during that panel. Further, I should have let you and the other panelists know it would not be webcast after all. When I corrected the situation and had the webcast taken down, the panel had already been up on the website for a brief time, so some visitors might have viewed it. It is no longer available.”

According to Maximilian Forte, the video was uploaded by Case Western to YouTube on September 23, and was marked on YouTube as having been removed a week later, after Forte published a critique of Christopher King’s symposium performance on the website of the group, Anthropologists for Justice and Peace.

I replied to Ms Simon, explaining that the  removal of this video had implications beyond the participant refusing to sign the release, writing that over the last decade I have been involved in policy discussions among anthropologists and other scholars considering the ethical, moral, political and academic freedom issues raised when anthropologists and other scholars engage, even critically engage, directly with military and intelligence agency personnel or subcontractors for these agencies.  I wrote Ms Simon that,

“I have long been an advocate of anthropologists continuing to engage with the military and with anthropologists working in military settings so long as such exchanges are open and not bound by restrictions not normally found in academic settings.  Transparency and accountability is a central ethical value in my work. I regularly do not accept interesting invitations from organizations ranging from the CIA to prestigious Universities where the event carries either non-disclosure or non-attribution restrictions as both of these are counter to normal academic forms of inquiry or discussion. In accepting to engage in this session at Case Western I had understood that our remarks would be available online so that normal levels of transparency would occur.  I would not have participated had I known that unlike all of the other sessions at this symposium, the one that I participated in would not be available for others to see online.”

Neither Ms Simon nor anyone at Case Western bothered to reply to my email.

My panel only consisted of three people: me, George Lucas, (professor of Ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy), and Christopher King (Director, Social Science Directorate of the Army’s Human Terrain Systems Program).  I wrote Drs. King and Lucas asking what happened, and Lucas soon replied that he had not requested the removal of the video.  Eventually, Christopher King replied that he was blocking the posting of the session on the web because he

“was not comfortable with posting my session online given that I have not taken part in my tape presentation before [sic.]. I still feel however that military and anthropologists were engaged in the conversation. Your presentation should be available for all to see. I was only concerned about my presentation. If yours is not there then CWU is being lazy in their editing.”

To be clear, Dr. King has the right to not sign this media release that all the other scholars at this event signed, but if he is not going to sign it, those impacted by his decision against transparency should have been notified so that they could choose whether or not they wanted to enable Dr. King and the Human Terrain System’s efforts to remain publicly unaccountable for their activities.

I wrote Dr. King and urged him to rethink his decision to keep what participants had assumed was a public discussion private, writing him that,

“insofar as my remarks, the context in which they were made, and the discussion that followed have been removed from public access, your decision to have this removed impacts my academic freedom and undermines general efforts to get university based academics to engage with military anthropologists.”

I warned King that:

“Your decision to withhold your remarks from the public record will also negatively impact your fellow anthropologists working in military and intelligence settings.  When the AAA issued its 2007 Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security and Intelligence Communities report on engagement it took steps to try and contextualize some military anthropologists’ work within the larger frame of normal anthropological activities, yet your steps to remove your remarks from public view highlights one of the significant ways that military anthropology is removed from normal anthropological and academic practices at a mundane academic conference.  Your predecessor at HTS became well known for publicly decrying military anthropologists’ marginalization even while refusing to engage in normal academic discourse or answer criticisms from academic colleagues, and your move to withhold your remarks appears to be a furtherance of this practice.  Your decision will inevitably lead anthropologists like myself (who signed off on CEAUSSIC’s 2007 Report) to disengage from any interaction with anthropologists working in military settings because of the conditions of non-transparency and non-accountability that you bring to these encounters.

If you and other anthropologists working in military and intelligence circles want the respect of your mainstream colleagues, you need to act under normal standards of academic transparency and accountability.  If you are unwilling to act by such normal standards of academic behavior (as measured in this instance by you being the only person at the symposium to demand this treatment), you need to accept your own contributions to your own marginalization.”

Obviously Case Western should have told the participants in this session what was going on, and they should not have censored my and Lucas’ remarks (both in our presentation and in the discussion that followed) by removing them from the web.  Dr. King and Human Terrain Systems needs to stop pretending they are engaged in normal academic discourse when they won’t adapt normal practices of accountability.

I don’t know why Dr. King insisted that this video be taken offline.  It may simply be that he went a half-hour past the recommended ten minute time limit we had been given and presented an awkward non-academic military-type-briefing briefing full of busily-cluttered PowerPoint slides,  or he might not understand the responsibility to the public for being responsible for reporting on where the funds for his expensive program are going, or it may have been some other reason.  Dr. Forte believes King’s decision was made because of how foolish he looked during the question and answer session when I gently turned his own words against him.

After Dr. Forte was told by Case Western University Law School to withdraw the original video from YouTube, the Canadian group Anthropologists for Justice and Peace posted a four-minute video that included a brief excerpt from this symposium session.  In this short video clip, a member of the audience asks the following question:

“I have a little bit of background in anthropology, linguistics, and Middle East Studies, and my question may be a little unfair because it doesn’t relate to human terrain mapping and what not, . . .in the counterinsurgency context, but actually right here at home. Because it seems like there is now a domestic civilian application for this program abroad, in that The New York Times and the Associated Press over the last three weeks have talked about an extensive and detailed human terrain mapping of the Muslim, Arab, Pakistani, Moroccan community in New York, with dossiers on 250 mosques, studying coffee shops, barber shops, bookstores, street vendors, mosques, hookah bars, and the Moroccan community has recently basically said, “Look, this is our hair salon. We cut hair all day.” But, . . .this has now come home. So what are the ethical considerations–the “do no harm,” the voluntary consent, you know, the accessibility to these records?  All these issues are now facing us square at home with our American Muslim community. And this is just very important to our community. Thank you.”

Dr. King replied to this question saying that all he knew about this program was what had been reported in the New York Times, but he added that he found this domestic application to be “scary.”   The video shows that when I was given a minute to respond, I turned King’s words against him saying, “I’ll just quickly respond to the question about the reports in The New York Times, which I would urge you all to hunt down, they are pretty disturbing. You know, Christopher said he also (turning to Dr. King)–I don’t know if you used the word “disturbing” within, or ‘troubling.’”  King can be heard on the video saying, “Yes, troubling, that’s for sure.”

I continued, saying:

“I think the meaning of this, though, is that we’re having the same techniques that we’re doing to the Other, that we’re doing in another culture, are hitting us in the face when we do them here at home. You have essentially a parallel situation that’s going on, where domestic counterinsurgency is going on here in the United States, using many of these tactics that I and others are reacting to that are happening abroad. Roberto Gonzalez, in his book on Human Terrain, shows that the term itself actually comes from the 1960s in domestic. . . counter-radical activities that were going on, monitoring the Black Panthers and other internal groups. So it’s really come full circle.  So I, I thank you for that question.”

Someone in the audience then commented that “nobody mentioned COINTELPRO,” and a confused Christopher King asked, “the what?,” and I can be seen explaining to King that COINTELPRO was a FBI program and still looking confused he can be heard to say “Oh, I don’t know about it, OK.”

I have no idea if the video record of this performance is why Dr. King wanted the video removed from public view, but I do know that this ongoing pattern of publicly funded militarized scholars refusing to engage in transparent discourse with colleagues (even while complaining about being marginalized in their disciplines) is leading me to consider adopting a position where I will stop trying to carry out such discussions with my militarized colleagues.

This shift has been some time coming.  In 2008 I delivered remarks on the poor academic performances—and the all too typical failure to even show up or send an academic paper—by most (but not all) of the military anthropologists in what was to be an academic session at the 2008 American Anthropological Association’s annual meetings.  I wondered if the inherent silences dominating these interactions rendered them near worthless.   I opened my remarks saying that,

“I appreciate the restraints anthropologists working for the military face, I suppose we all face some sort of restrictions, but there is a point where these restrictions not only overly-constrict transparency, but they limit the public analysis and conversations that can publicly be had with the external world. When these narratives are shared with us on the outside, there are patterns to the silences and unaddressed elements that are informative, even if their presence is mostly marked as empty or “negative spaces”—that is: things not said whose absence defines everything surrounding them.”

My remarks focused on the ways that the military papers present or absent from that session were united by the ways that these absences and silences became their own message.  I ended by critically questioning what is gained by these interactions and anthropology’s inability to confront recurrent formations of militarized power relations.  After this session a friend who is a fellow critic of anthropology’s militarized turn approached me saying words to the effect that, “well I guess we can finally stop having this same old conversation with military anthropologists.”  At the time of these comments, I hadn’t reached this position — if nothing else I’ve always seen such exchanges as a compelling opportunity to publicly illustrate the academic, ethical, and political shortcomings of much of militarized anthropology—but the cumulative toll of a decade of these odd and often stilted public exchanges (and a long trails of non-transparent declined invitations), is such that I have grown increasingly skeptical of efforts to hold academic exchanges with those coming from institutions whose anti-transparent practices undermine normal academic exchanges.

Dr. King has every right to not sign his media release, but my reaction is simply the cumulative effect of frustration and weariness of a decade of efforts to try and engage in an academic conversation with representatives of a group insisting they have been unfairly marginalized by mainstream academics, yet whoseactions repeatedly undermine explicit and implicit standards and practices of academic openness.

DAVID PRICE is a professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University.  His book, Weaponizing Anthropology, has just been published by CounterPunch Books. He will be presenting a paper this week at the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) annual meetings on a newly disclosed historical relationship between the AAA and CIA.  He can be reached at: dprice@stmartin.edu