Bad Intelligence

Bad Intelligence

David Price’s long battle against anthropology’s collaborations with the national-security state.


After 9/11, the Bush administration identified two clear threats to America’s safety, one foreign and the other domestic. The foreign threat was Al Qaeda and its allies. The domestic threat was “bad intelligence,” the (alleged) failure of our nation’s best spies and analysts to see the attacks coming, much less stop them. And so it was decided: The country needed better intelligence—fast. The coffers opened and cash began to flow, with the ostensible aim of helping the government better understand the world. Most of the funds went to the familiar (or soon-to-be-familiar) nodes of the national-security state: CIA, FBI, DOD, NSA.

As this money trickled its way down to academia, social scientists were particularly well positioned to scoop up their share. New battlefields meant new local populations to navigate: belief systems to understand, behaviors to predict, culturally tailored propaganda to fashion. In perhaps the best-known example, anthropologists and other social scientists took jobs with the US Army’s Human Terrain System. HTS teams joined military units in the field in Afghanistan and Iraq, attempting to boost the soldiers’ understanding of the people they encountered (the “human terrain”). The program became headline news. Much like the highly publicized counterinsurgency manual, HTS was meant to serve as evidence of a leaner, smarter military, one armed with not just high-tech weaponry but also with an academically approved knowledge of the local culture. Plus the idea of professors trading their tweed jackets and horn-rimmed glasses for combat fatigues and night-vision goggles made HTS easy fodder for the nightly news and glossy magazines.

But other developments linking the study of culture and psychology with post-9/11 intel were given much less fanfare. The Defense Department, through its Minerva Initiative, began offering millions of dollars to social scientists who had submitted grant proposals on topics of national-security interest. The CIA created postdoctoral positions for anthropologists, a sop of sorts to the many students struggling in an increasingly anemic job market. Scholarship schemes like the Intelligence Community Scholars Program (ICSP) and the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program (PRISP), the latter developed by anthropologist Felix Moos of the University of Kansas, would help students with their tuition costs and living expenses, on the condition that they later worked for agencies like the CIA and NSA.

To the extent that an explanation exists linking these programs to each other and to their relevant historical contexts, it does so thanks in large part to the labors of anthropologist David Price of St. Martin’s University. Others have written on the entanglement of the social sciences with the military-intelligence complex, but none as energetically, from as many angles, or with as sensitive an eye for connections and overarching themes. Starting in the 1990s, Price has devoted his research to probing his discipline’s ties to the postwar security state, arguing that they have been extensive, troubling, and chronically underexamined. (Though he focuses on anthropology, his findings almost always involve the other social sciences as well.) After 9/11, Price was perfectly equipped to point out—not only in professional outlets like Anthropology Today, but in less specialized left-leaning venues like CounterPunch and Democracy Now!—that programs like HTS, ICSP, and PRISP were nothing new, just “variations on an old theme.” Looking to the past, he insisted, could help contemporary anthropologists think critically about the compatibility of mission-oriented intelligence work with the ideals of independent science.

In 2014, the Pentagon quietly discontinued the Human Terrain System (so quietly that it took journalists almost a year to notice). By then, Price had published multiple broadsides dissecting the program’s muddled mission, operational failures, and deceptive claims on its own behalf. He had also been a member of the American Anthropological Association commission that condemned HTS, pointing out that by having anthropologists report from occupied territory to the occupying power, the program made a mockery of basic anthropological research ethics, which require fieldworkers to constantly consider and prioritize the safety of their subjects. (This is why, to cite just one basic example, real people’s names and exact living locations are often changed in ethnographies.) Like it or not, Price argued, the US Army’s main job is to kill and dominate; anthropologists couldn’t take an advisory role in the kill chain and simultaneously maintain any real allegiance to its human targets.

In addition to his AAA work, Price helped start the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, a group that circulated arguments against collaborations with the security state—HTS especially—and attempted to convince anthropologists to sign a pledge against all such work. The group eventually reported having collected over 1,000 signatures; if each signatory were a member of the AAA, this would represent about one-tenth of the organization.

But the death of HTS probably had little to do with anything that Price or any other anthropologist wrote. Many in the military never liked the program—or Gen. David Petraeus, one of its most prominent champions. But whatever the cause of the HTS’s downfall, it is doubtful that Price found much to celebrate. Writing in 2011 about the program’s increasing failure to recruit qualified participants (despite its generous salaries) and about its condemnation by the AAA, he noted mournfully that, while one particularly egregious program may have been successfully stigmatized, the more general trend toward the militarization of anthropological knowledge—and of the academic space itself—was likely proceeding unchecked, thanks to the ripple effects of programs like Minerva and PRISP. With each grant or scholarship, Price argued, the intelligence sector was shifting academia’s perspective on the world—its sense of which questions were most worth asking, and which types of answers would be most useful.

Especially troubling to Price was the secrecy surrounding these developments. PRISP participants, for example, do not disclose their affiliations to their professors or colleagues. Despite proclamations of transparency, many Minerva grants are classified. Also, Price knew from his research that the publicly acknowledged programs were likely to be just the tip of the iceberg—and that when agencies like the CIA got involved, it soon became easy for academics to lose track of how their disciplines were being shaped by external forces. Classified funding streams and secret players, he insisted, put anthropologists in predicaments similar to those encountered by the protagonists of Philip K. Dick’s paranoid postmodern science fiction: “Unclear of their own agency and identity; becoming unsure of their own histories and memories, or true political alliances,” anthropologists were, in effect, “becoming undercover agents with identities unknown even to themselves.”

* * *

Until recently, Price argues, there was a critical mass of anthropologists who, because they taught in the 1960s and ’70s, had painful firsthand memories of manipulation by the security state. As a result, this generation had a reflexive wariness—surely not shared by all anthropologists, but perhaps by enough—that helped the discipline avoid, at least for a while, entanglements it would later regret. Today, these skeptical anthropologists are retiring or dying off; the passage of time, combined with the ever-increasing scarcity of higher-education funds, has opened the door to a new era of blurred lines.

The driving purpose of Price’s academic work has been to bolster (and eventually replace) the institutional memory of the old guard with a formal published body of scholarship. But none of his books to date have tackled the key Cold War years directly or comprehensively. What began as a chapter about anthropologists and World War II became a book of its own, Anthropological Intelligence (2008). First, though, Price completed and published a different book altogether, Threatening Anthropology (2004), which focuses on the interactions between the FBI and anthropologists during the Red scares of the ’40s and ’50s. He was advised, Price has said, that his fellow anthropologists would be more receptive to a debut book in which the discipline was less a collaborator and more of a victim, scrutinized and threatened by the maniacal, all-powerful J. Edgar Hoover as punishment for endorsing racial equality.

Only now, in Cold War Anthropology, does Price tackle head-on the era that probably got him started in the first place. In the book’s acknowledgments, he explains the delay as the result not just of his multiple detours, but also of the project’s unpopularity within his own field. He was unable, he reports, to secure any traditional grants to support his research or writing. Whenever he had to do archival research, he would either wait until he received a speaking invitation at a school near a particular archive or pay for the trip himself. He also paid for many of his Freedom of Information Act requests. He describes these obstacles with a slight but detectable note of pride. The roadblocks, after all, support his overarching thesis: that anthropology, as a discipline, has long been allergic to examining the ways it has been influenced by state power. The more recent and widespread the interference, the stronger the allergy.

Flipping casually through Cold War Anthropology, you’d be forgiven for thinking that its main purpose is to catalog the anthropologists who collaborated directly with the security state. This category includes anthropologists who went to work directly for the CIA (or its predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services), either as desk analysts or field agents; anthropologists who kept their day jobs but took direct orders from the CIA or Pentagon about what to research (or, more often, how to steer the course of others’ research); and anthropologists in the field who used their professional identity as cover for espionage on the government’s behalf. This last group is particularly disturbing to Price, because it risked raising the world’s suspicions against everyone in the discipline, making it that much harder for real fieldworkers to negotiate entrée and stay safe. In a 1990 survey, 15 percent of field anthropologists reported having been accused or suspected of being spies. It hardly helps that, more than once, CIA agents have used anthropology as a cover.

Traveling, talking to people, trying to figure out what they believe and how they think: As professions go, ethnography and espionage are, if not siblings, at least distant cousins with a strong resemblance. The difference is that anthropologists are supposed to feel some responsibility toward their subjects, and are supposed to serve some ideal of scientific inquiry. Spies, on the other hand, make inquiries not for science but for their employers, and are generally subject to organizational pressures that limit what conclusions they are realistically able to conclude and still be listened to.

In another book—a Don DeLillo or Norman Rush novel, perhaps—the direct collaborators and their adventures straddling academe and espionage might have been front and center. But Price is ultimately chasing bigger, more elusive quarry. Just as he insists that HTS matters less than the underlying trends it represents, he cares less about the dramas of individual anthropologists in Cold War Anthropology and more about the subtle, systemic changes throughout the field—changes that threatened to make the discipline itself a security-state collaborator, sucking in individual researchers without their full knowledge.

The main character here isn’t a person but money: the vast postwar funding streams that flowed from the state to academia during the Cold War. After 9/11, the government turned to the social sciences once again, cash in hand, for help with puzzling questions: Why did “they” hate us? Why weren’t we welcomed with roses and sweets in the streets of Iraq, or with tears of gratitude in Afghanistan? How could we fight (and win) the post-9/11 world’s new wars? Who would turn to terrorism or insurgency, and under what conditions? The initial Minerva Initiative funding pot was $50 million; this money made it one of the largest single sources of social-science funding in the country. Throughout the Cold War, the questions were organized around a similar core: What did “they” think of communism, and why? Would they fight for it? If so, how? Could they be convinced not to? If the answer was no, what would it take for them to accept defeat?

Price isn’t arguing that Cold War anthropologists simply “sold out,” pursuing topics they weren’t interested in under the sway of the almighty dollar. (Is “selling out” ever really that simple?) Instead, “like their colleagues in the physical sciences, postwar anthropologists increasingly engaged in dual use research projects, pursuing questions of interest to themselves on topics of interest to sponsors.” In the majority of cases, the anthropologists involved wouldn’t even know this was happening. Perhaps a higher-up in their department was a CIA or Pentagon liaison who nudged their research in the right direction. Often, it was something even less direct: a matter of knowing which types of research proposals were likely to be approved by the influential nonprofit foundations of the day, while simultaneously not knowing that many of those nonprofits were propped up by laundered CIA cash. Often, prominent foundations (including the Ford Foundation) would have CIA employees on staff, helping to make sure the cash flowed in the right general direction. And increasingly, anthropologists smoothed the process by championing “area studies” programs, interdisciplinary hubs focused on specific regions of the world. Thanks to the widespread adoption of area studies, whenever the CIA or the Pentagon had a question about this or that part of the world, it knew exactly where to go.

Pinning down the effects of this type of influence is a slippery task, even with the benefit of hindsight. Price recognizes that, because of classified and incomplete records, his case is built almost entirely upon fragments and traces, worrying droplets that he hopes add up to a very dark cloud. Whether you think he succeeds will probably depend on your prior opinions about the CIA, the power and limits of individual agency, and the responsibility of any scientist engaged in work with more than one potential use (which is to say: all scientists).

One of the most illustrative examples of this soft-power dynamic is that of the Human Ecology Fund. The fund, which awarded grants for social-science research from 1955 to ’65, was administered by Harold Wolff, a highly respected neurologist at Cornell Medical School. HEF was set up after Wolff met Allen Dulles, the head of the CIA, while treating Dulles’s son for a brain injury. The fund got its money from the agency’s now-infamous MK-Ultra program, which was tasked with studying “brainwashing,” mind control, interrogation, and the like. Wolff doled out grants for anthropologists and other social scientists to study a host of relevant topics, including pleasure, pain, stress, isolation, sleep deprivation, hypnosis, and the variation in cultural responses to all of the above.

There is nothing inherently wrong with researching any of these topics. Presumably, the vast majority of HEF grant recipients (who had no idea about the CIA connections) conceived of themselves as adding to our shared understanding of human nature and thus contributing to our success as a self-aware species. But in 1963, HEF-funded research fundamentally informed the writing of the first-ever Army/CIA Kubark Intelligence Interrogation manual. Commonly known as America’s “torture manual,” Kubark was the defining text of the massive US torture program in Vietnam, as well as (with future editions) the training provided by the CIA to Latin American and South Asian police forces working to crush popular-resistance movements. After 9/11, Kubark-style techniques resurfaced in US military prisons around the world.

Price isn’t arguing that the potential Kubark-ization of research findings means that the research itself shouldn’t be done. What he wants is for academics to talk about it—all academics, but anthropologists especially. Dual-use research tied to the security state poses dilemmas for many academic fields, not least the physical sciences, where its effects are more obviously visible (sometimes leaving behind a literal mushroom cloud). But the tone of Price’s book communicates a frustrated sense that anthropology, in particular, should be better at talking about this stuff. First, there’s the obligation to consider the effects of the research on the population being studied: Who is interested in reading social-science research on a particular part of the world, and why? What intentions might those people have other than simply increasing their appreciation of the vast human tapestry? But perhaps most frustrating to Price is his clear sense that, if anthropologists from Mars came to study their counterparts in the United States—their history, culture, rituals, belief systems, taboos, and shibboleths—then one of the first things the Martians would notice would be the Americans’ consistent aversion to any reminder of their work’s enmeshment in larger political developments. It drives Price crazy that his own tribe—the tribe of tribe studiers—could be so myopic about itself.

This aversion is not just irresponsible; it also stops anthropologists from fulfilling their core mission of describing the world as it is. As a central example, Price holds up Clifford Geertz’s famous “thick descriptions” of Balinese cockfights that, through careful attention to detail, yielded all manner of insights into greater Balinese society by evoking what the cockfights meant to their observers, the role they played as vessels of meaning. But if you read those thick descriptions today, you would never know that a bloody coup was raging in Indonesia just off frame, let alone that the coup was sponsored by the CIA—and certainly not that Geertz’s work was, too.

* * *

Price doesn’t argue that anthropology never looks in the mirror; instead, he suggests that even its most intense moments of self-examination tend to fizzle out without lasting effect. In the late 1960s, Ramparts magazine published its famous exposé of the CIA’s infiltration into the National Student Association; this story, and numerous follow ups by Ramparts and other outlets, revealed the CIA’s massive penetration of nonprofit foundations. Within anthropology, the revelations dovetailed with widespread opposition to the Vietnam War, distrust of established authority, and the growing awareness that brutal and undemocratic interventions were being staged throughout the world in the name of democracy. Young anthropologists doing fieldwork in Southeast Asia started to grasp that, whatever their personal motives, they were often reporting, in effect, to the same people who decided which villages got bombed or razed. As a result, the AAA’s annual meetings became a battleground for debate over the discipline’s correct response. The Radical Caucus (and, later, Anthropologists for Radical Political Action) agitated for resolutions against covert research.

The basic story is one of short-term victory for anthropology’s in-house critics—all of the proposed resolutions were passed—followed by retrenchment by their elders on the executive committee. Margaret Mead, a conflicted member of the older generation, led a committee that attempted to stem the tide of self-criticism by insisting that there was nothing inherently sinister about working with the military, even on counterinsurgency projects. This committee’s report pointed out, quite correctly, that such collaborations were the historical norm, not the exception. Montgomery McFate, the Naval War College anthropologist who was a key planner of the Human Terrain System, has made similar observations, arguing that to cut anthropologists off from their traditional association with war-making would be to seal their fate as a “cult of irrelevance.” Other defenders pointed out that after hearing what anthropologists had to say, the government often simply ignored it—so what did it matter who paid the bills? In essence, they were arguing that as far as the government was concerned, anthropologists already were irrelevant, which immunized them from charges of collaboration. In 1971, when Mead’s report was rejected by the AAA’s membership, even Mead joined the vote against it.

Soon afterward, the AAA executive committee made it more difficult for new motions to be introduced and discussed at annual meetings. This may not sound like much, but in the pre-Internet age, when a conference made it possible for groups to hash out plans in person in a way that they couldn’t do otherwise, the change severely hobbled the various activist factions’ ability to get their resolutions added to the annual mail ballot. Then the US involvement in Vietnam came to an end, and the fiery passions it had incited faded.

In 1989, the ban on covert research was lifted on the grounds that it stood between anthropologists and an increasingly popular pursuit: doing proprietary work on behalf of for-profit corporations. In the aftermath of the HTS controversy, that ban has since been restored. But the AAA is a professional organization, not a regulatory body: It can’t actually stop anthropologists from doing anything.

How could things be different? Price has a few ideas, chiefly his proposal for an independent, government-funded social-science research agency that picks its own projects, serving as a firewall against the mission-first perspective transmitted like a virus by security-state funding. Absent that, he seems to want a resurgence of the 1960s and 1970s spirit of interrogation and exposé. But money is the main villain in the corruption of academic research. “I see no conspiracy here beyond capitalism,” Price writes; there is much that could and should be done, but the deck is stacked. Universities and students are starved for cash. As a result, many schools–especially those further down the prestige ladder–want to attract PRISP participants, Department of Homeland Security grants, and the like. A remotely definitive history of what any of this means—a history that elucidates not just the droplets but the clouds—will not be writeable for decades. Let’s hope David Price is still around to write it. Or, better yet, that he inspires many others to tackle the subject.


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