Militarized Observers: Institutional Daydreams of Ethics End Runs to Weaponize Culture

A significant limitation facing scholars studying US military uses of anthropology and other social sciences is that while the existence and activities of various military programs are known, and some related documents are available, there is much about these programs that remains unknown to outsiders. Yet, even with these gaps in knowledge, it is possible to detect patterns indicating trends or recurrent institutional desires and approaches.

For this research I spend a lot of time following dead ends and reading all sorts of boring reports. These reports often have little or no concrete information pertaining the programs I’m researching, yet cumulatively this reading builds a gestalt suggesting institutional patterns and gaps that have apparent shapes, even if a lack of documentation prevents establishing exactly what is happening in the bigger picture. But without documents discussing these apparent patterns, these elements remain just speculation. Occasionally I come across a document that, even with its limitations, expresses the contours of these apparent patterns. I discuss one such document here—a document showing institutional desires of the sort I have long assumed existed but would have been happier to learn weren’t as twisted as I suspected.

Four years ago, I filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for a master’s thesis titled, “Intelligence and Anthropology: The Cultural Knowledge Gap,” written by a student at the National Defense Intelligence College. A few weeks ago, the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) mailed me a redacted version of this 114+ page 2008 master’s thesis.

The Department of Defense redacted the author’s identity under exemptions 10 U.S. Code §424, exemption (b)(3)—exemptions indicating an affiliation with the Department of Defense’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. The student’s committee’s identities are redacted under more general FOIA exemptions protecting identities of personal privacy (§552 (b)(6)). This redaction of the author of a master’s thesis, seems an unusual withholding, a withholding that marks a distance separating this sort of work from normal practices of academic accountability.

Master’s theses are rarely works of significant scholarship; I know mine wasn’t, nor were most of my colleagues or friends’ theses. Master’s theses are usually waymarks denoting the development of academic skills in progress, showing a student’s command of literature, abilities to design and complete a research project while engaging with significant methodologies and theoretical debates in their discipline and institutions. In consultation with committee members, a student’s raw work is shaped by the temperaments, styles, and assumptions of their discipline, institution, and times. It is this engagement with the assumptions of the institution in which this thesis was produced that makes this thesis a worthy artifact for contemplation: its assumptions and approach to anthropology as an intelligence tool illuminate significant assumptions and practices of the author, thesis committee, and the National Defense Intelligence College.

The cultural moment birthing this particular thesis was a highwater mark for US military and intelligence agencies’ optimistic dreams of harnessing anthropology for counterinsurgency campaigns in America’s terror wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. General David Petraeus’ pitch for counterinsurgency strategies was a hot commodity and his popularity was on the rise, as his counterinsurgency strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan had not yet failed. Petraeus and his counterinsurgency cronies were making extraordinary claims that the US military could use culture as a weapon in military victories—claims contrary to the overwhelming historical record of counterinsurgency quagmires.

The ethos of this rising counterinsurgency era birthed history’s most expensive, and wasteful, federally anthropological project: the almost three-quarters of a billion dollars Human Terrain Systems (HTS) program ($727,000,000), that embedded anthropologists and other social scientists with soldiers in settings of occupation and battle zones. HTS ran from 2007 until it was terminated in 2014 with a record of failing to function as promised, institutionalized sexism, widespread mismanagement, and unaccounted for funds. HTS was a boondoggle. As a con, it succeeded by telling an unimaginably rich mark (the Pentagon) exactly what it wanted to hear: that it could do extraordinary things with what appeared to be common undervalued objects (anthropologists), in much the same way that shysters seek investors for schemes claiming they have the secret to powering cars with tap water. HTS made wild promises about the magic beans of culture that it couldn’t fulfill, and like most cons it eventually collapsed. And it was these sorts of extraordinary promises made by HTS and the counterinsurgency gurus that fed the drive of this master’s thesis.

The thesis opens with the era’s obligatory salutes to Sun Tzu, Herodotus, T.E. Lawrence, and David Petraeus, as sages of what was then imagined as a new age of warfighting. This was a time when the Powell-Weinberger doctrine (“which emphasized the use of overwhelming disproportionate force, had proven disastrous in Iraq and Afghanistan”) was being replaced by culture warriors, who would conquer and occupy with new levels of success based on their harnessing and weaponizing the secrets of culture. A touchstone of this new age was “Ethnographic Intelligence,” referred to by those in the know simply as “EI.” Proponents of “ethnographic intelligence” argued that the solutions for America’s occupations were found in anthropology’s understandings of the local cultures.

The thesis’ author acknowledged that the most significant hurdle facing Ethnographic Intelligence was that most anthropologists reject using anthropology to assist military or intelligence agencies; acknowledging that, “as scholars of the ‘human condition,’ most anthropologists remain unwilling participants of warfare, military strategy, and security policy making.”

The author noted that anthropologists have significantly different ethical responsibilities to studied populations than do soldiers, who “unlike the anthropologist, the soldier ethnographer does not have a Code of Ethics, instead he has the Soldier’s Creed.” This is not entirely true, and it is surprising that this student’s academic advisors did not clarify there are ethical guidelines governing soldiers’ human research, that for example, the (1978) Belmont Report was written by the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research or other research standards still apply. Ignoring this, the thesis argued that the soldier’s creed, “instructs him that he is a Warrior and member of a team. He serves the people of the United States and lives the Army values. He will always place the mission first. And, he will stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat because he a guardian of freedom and the American way of life.”

The thesis argued that despite anthropologists’ disciplinary aversion to assisting counterinsurgency operations, the political economy of higher education could assist with recruiting anthropologists:

“As the Department of Defense ramps up its recruitment of anthropologists in an effort to integrate cultural knowledge into today’s military, anthropologists will have to weigh the pros and cons of working for government agencies. The government has one eternal reality to its advantage, each year there are far more graduates in the field of anthropology than there are academic faculty positions available. Although anthropologists will continue to bemoan the threat government work poses to the field’s integrity and ethical standards, the reality is that employment opportunities abound for anthropologists in the national security and intelligence communities. Such opportunities will only increase as these communities attempt to determine the next threat to U.S. national Security.”

In other words, with the increasing rates of crushing student loan debt, reduced research grant funds, and lack of university job prospects, the Pentagon could bet that anthropologists can stop worrying and learn to love the bomb. While I’ve long written about these conditions assisting the military’s recruitment efforts, it is creepy to find this argument explicitly made as part of this militarized calculus. Academic ideas are certainly swayed by funding, and with skyrocketing debt and the collapse of sustainable tenure track jobs in universities, such scenarios appear to become increasingly likely.

This point was later expanded as the thesis argued that, unlike the rich streams of military funding, the severe limitations of academia create natural vulnerabilities that can be exploited, writing that,

“There has never been a surplus of research funding, yet conducting field research remains a rite of passage for those wishing to establish anthropological legitimacy and credentials. Consequently, despite protests from the ethical traditionists, funding for research regardless of the source would be welcome in academia provided that academics still had the latitude to conduct research at their discretion and to draw their own conclusions about the data they collected.”

The author recognized that general social science funding, with no military or intelligence links was a good way of generating useful cultural knowledge that could be used by the military. Though this research is completely independent from the military, the fruits of this research would still become available for use by military and intelligence agencies. In very general terms, this has always been part of the rationalization for funding basic science at the National Science Foundation, Title VI funded foreign language study, and Fulbright scholarships: even with independence from the military-intelligence machine, some of the generated knowledge will later by others, including the military.

The thesis then argued that,

“those anthropologists that remain wary of government funding would also benefit without having to acquiesce. Money or research funding in this case in fungible. The bottom line is that more funding is more funding. Scholars without ethical reservations would accept funding from the Minerva Consortium or equivalent government source inevitably freeing up other sources of funding for the wary. The end result is that more anthropological literature would be available to military and intelligence professional and policy makers.”

Still, the author was impatient and called for more aggressive and systematic approaches to harvest anthropological knowledge, arguing that the “Military and Intelligence Communities cannot afford to wait for the fate of the Minerva Consortium or the reconciliation of academia and intelligence.” This urgency demanded immediate action, the offered solution was that that “the Department of Defense and the [Intelligence Community] must begin to passively but meticulously consume all available references pertaining to their area of expertise in order to build a deeper foundation of cultural knowledge.”

This consumption of open source anthropological knowledge to inform counterinsurgency operations is what the Human Terrain Systems program was then seeking to accomplish. HTS tried to develop high-tech means of connecting embedded its “social scientists” in Afghanistan and Iraq with stateside HTS scientists accessing relevant ethnographic data in real time. While none of this worked as planned, it was an effort to realize military dreams of weaponizing the published ethnographic literature in the field so clearly expressed here.

The author conceded that even with the wonderful prospects of debt and unemployment, there may be difficulties in finding enough anthropologists willing to work for empire. This was because the “friction that exists between academic organizations such as the American Anthropological Association and Military and Intelligence communities has precluded for the most part any fruitful collaboration. Consequently, it is necessary to consider alternative methods that would allow analysts to obtain the type of cultural knowledge described earlier.” Because of anthropologists’ frequent ethical objections to working for intelligence agencies, the author weighed other, less direct, means of harvesting anthropological information for intelligence work.

One of the proposals for obtaining anthropological knowledge was to have members of intelligence agencies undertake ethnographic-based research, noting that programs like the Peace Corps or Fulbright Programs “provide excellent opportunity to conduct in-depth research in a country being studied.” However, the author acknowledged that using such programs could endanger the “goodwill” and “U.S. soft power” generated by these programs. The author appears unaware that using Peace Corps volunteers and Fulbright scholars for intelligence work has long been prohibited by federal law and would constitute violations of longstanding agreements between the State Department and military and intelligence agencies. This is no small oversight, and shows a significant gap in this student’s understanding, but more significantly it reflects poorly on the [identity redacted] scholars overseeing this master’s thesis project. It is troubling that the thesis committee did not catch this.

The thesis then considered several programs more explicitly linked to military and intelligence agencies. The National Security Education Program (NSEP) was viewed as one way to bring anthropologists into intelligence work through the “payback” requirement built into the fellowship. NSEP’s “payback” provision requires recipients to later seek employment in federal agencies linked with national security work. The author noted that many anthropologists refuse to participate in NSEP, because of these links to intelligence work, but then added that many prominent anthropology departments continue to provide links to information on NSEP on departmental websites, thereby passively encouraging participation. The thesis noted that the University of Chicago Anthropology Department webpage listed NSEP as a funding source for grad students. Yet, while advertising this funding, the webpage cautioned students that these funds are from the Department of Defense—which the author pointed out no other fellowship (including those from foreign governments, and the State Department) carried any such cautionary warning.

The third considered method of generating ethnographic intelligence proposed attaching individuals to embassies, where they could use their posting to gather ethnographic intelligence. The thesis refers to these hypothetical teams as “ethnographic Intelligence reconnaissance groups.” But this idea was rejected, acknowledging the many problems facing any embassy-linked individuals trying to integrate and acquire meaningful cultural information.

A final, fourth, alternative means of gathering ethnographic intelligence was suggested. This alternative aligns with what I elsewhere describe as “dual use anthropology”—a process where the research of independent, non-military aligned, academic anthropologists is later repurposed by military researchers for their own uses. The thesis proposed that,

“The alternative is that the [Intelligence Community] allows anthropologists to continue to conduct their professional field research uninterrupted and without interference from the federal government. Intel analysts, however, should be encouraged to exploit the products of such research for their own benefit once published. Certainly one can argue that the topics anthropologists choose to study may not always seem compatible with intelligence objectives. One student from the United Kingdom proposed studying the usefulness of ‘Community Led Total Sanitation Approach in Nepal’ and another ‘The Influence of Nepal’s Culture and Traditional Beliefs on the Development of Interior Design and Its Application to Urban Living Spaces.’”

Examples of field based ethnographic analysis were examined to show how specific cultural factors influence the power dynamics in these societies, arguing that if these factors were properly understood, then military and intelligence forces could make alliances or affect desired changes in these communities.

The thesis discussed how, during the Vietnam War, American anthropologist Gerald Hickey drew on his own extensive ethnographic fieldwork to write numerous reports at RAND for military and intelligence consumption. But the thesis does not address what a tragic figure Hickey became, as one who started out trying to help the Hmong villagers being harmed by the Vietnam War, then later misunderstanding that the government was only interested in taking what they wanted from his RAND reports, ignoring information that ran counter to its purposes. The dissertation instead used Hickey as an example of the sort of ethno-historical work that should be supported for the later uses by the military, ignoring that none of this worked out particularly well for Hickey, the Hmong, much less the American military. The thesis provided several examples demonstrating how the non-military linked ethnographic writings of academic anthropologists can be repurposed as intelligence data. One example was drawn from literature on Nepalese Maoist insurgency movement from the 1990s and 2000s, including an analysis of University of Chicago anthropologist, Tatsuro Kujikura’s analysis of this Maoist insurgency.

The master’s thesis has two parts, the first is 63 pages in length, complete with bibliographic sources, citing a range of academic literature, including works by me and colleagues critical of anthropologists working with military and intelligence agencies. The thesis’s first half concluded by arguing that in order to best integrate cultural knowledge for warfare, some US governmental agency needs to study cultures around the world. The author conceded that “one could argue that the Smithsonian already has that function, however, [HTS founder Montgomery] McFate’s proposal appears to be for a more practical organization that would be readily accessible to both policy makers and field commanders.” There is no awareness that during the Second World War the Smithsonian oversaw the “Ethnogeographic Board,” which coordinated ethnographic information needed by the War Department in many of the ways described in this thesis. It remains unknown what would happen today if the Pentagon requested this sort of ethnographic assistance from this governmental institution, but one complication would be that Smithsonian anthropologists abide by the same professional ethical guidelines used by other anthropologists; guidelines which developed after World War II, in part because of problems that emerged as anthropologists aggressively assisted the war effort, and adherence to these ethical standards would limit access to the forms of weaponized anthropology the Pentagon seeks.

The thesis’ second half is a 50 page “Classified Appendix” titled “National Intelligence Estimate Nepal: Prospects for long-term stability.” This is classified “Confidential/NOFORN,” and was released to me in full except for a few redacted passages and a bibliography containing classified sources. This chapter provided the sort of open source-based intelligence briefing that the first half of the thesis argued can be produced using anthropologists’ publications. The resulting work is a summary of political developments in Nepal, predictions of upcoming elections resulting in the formation of a multi-party government and the likelihood that the Nepal Army will support the new government—along with other predictions that are rated as having high, moderate, or low confidence. None of these predictions are startling, or vary from the sort of general comments any competent ex-pat makes over drinks when speaking of local politics. The sources for this analysis were mostly a mixture of news articles and academic publications.

Dreaming of a Weaponized Anthropology

What I like best about this master’s thesis is that the crude views expressed in it confirm what I and other anthropologist critics assumed at the time was the sort of dialogue transpiring within military and intelligence circles, and it adds credence to the analysis and warnings many critical anthropologists made at the time.

A decade ago, I speculated that one of the likely outcomes of the American Anthropological Association’s efforts, which I supported for political and ethical reasons, to curb the weaponization of anthropology would be that the military would seek to develop its own means of training “anthropologists.” I argued that given the military’s primary motivation for developing its own cultural training was to crudely sidestep anthropologists’ ethics codes, what the military would get for these efforts would be something a derogated form of mock anthropology, unable to deliver what it sought, but capable of some managerial feats.

This master’s thesis revisits old themes of military and intelligence operatives repurposing the research of unwitting academic anthropologists for intelligence purposes. In the past, this repurposing has occurred in a variety of ways. One of the more remarkable ways occurred between the early 1950s until the mid-1960s, as the CIA ran at least two dozen funding front foundations, creating funding sources that appeared to be normal foundations that the CIA used to directe funds to unwitting scholars working on research in areas of interest to the Agency, while the most funded scholars had no idea CIA funds were funding their work. This allowed scholars to pursue their research interests, while the CIA consumed reports and publications for knowledge of interest to it. This practice appears to have ended in the late 1960s after revelations in the press and congressional exposed numerous foundations running on CIA funds. But governmental and foundation records on the crisis of these “CIA orphans” created by the dissolution of these exposed CIA fronts, shows a recognition that much of the same outcomes would occur through the continued funding of research through legitimate non-CIA linked foundations.

These CIA fronts were in many ways an extraordinary, even unnecessary, means of collecting academic research for intelligence uses. This is because intelligence agencies routinely use open source materials for the bulk of their work; sources that include academic materials on specific geographical or topical areas of interest—if academics don’t understand this as they write and publish, they are missing a significant dimension of their disciplinary history. A point that this master’s thesis significantly highlights.

It is important to keep in mind what this thesis is and is not. Most significantly, it is only a master’s thesis, as such it was not written with the authority to enact policy or launch programs. It is the writings of a grad student far from any seat of power. Yet anthropologically speaking, it is also a useful artifact revealing the views and desires floating within a military educational institution at a specific period of time; as such, it tells us about particular institutional desires and views. The thesis’ desire for ethnographic knowledge is matched only by the author’s misunderstanding that the reasons why anthropologists won’t easily line up to help subjugate other cultures are not separate from how and why ethnography works. The author was unable to see how the processes of ethnographic research so frequently spawn loyalties embedding the truths departed in relationships of trust that make working for occupiers generally anathema. But still, even with this paradoxical barrier keeping the ethnographic sensitivities the military desires out of reach, acting as secret sharers, the military can read ethnography and search for spare parts to try and weaponize.



David Price is professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University. His latest book is The American Surveillance State: How the U.S. Spies on Dissent, published this month by Pluto Press.