Coming of Age in the NSA

Katonah, N.Y.

David Price’s “Anthropologists as Spies” [Nov. 20] is a timely and important article because historians of anthropology seem to have collective amnesia concerning the intersection of anthropological scholarship and politics. Identified by Laura Nader as the “phantom factor,” anthropologists all too often fail to acknowledge our intellectual forefathers and that many of our longstanding traditions were profoundly influenced by government institutions. This is all the more remarkable given the fact that anthropologists have traditionally worked among disfranchised groups and supposedly championed those cultures that have suffered because of the “progress” of Western civilization. Thus, rather than being the voice of the disfranchised, too many anthropologists have used the science of man as a handmaiden for the power of the state.

The sooner anthropologists recognize the as yet unwritten history of their work as spies the better. Price’s article is a step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done. This is especially true in light of the recent publication of Patrick Tierney’s controversial book Darkness in El Dorado. While it is one thing to recognize our past mistakes, it is incumbent upon anthropologists and the American Anthropological Association to take actions to prevent them from happening again. I believe that any anthropologist who knowingly works for a US intelligence agency such as the FBI or CIA and uses his or her position or fieldwork as a cover for covert actions should be sanctioned by the AAA. This is not an original idea, nor is it my own–Franz Boas suggested it in 1919. The result? He was censured by the AAA. If anthropologists do not impose sanctions against covert research are we not giving tacit approval for these studies? And equally important, how can we expect the people we are supposed to be studying to believe anything we say?


Pacific Palisades, Calif.

David Price puts anthropologists doing undercover spying for the government together with anthropologists choosing to work openly for the government or organizations funded by the government. Without question it is reprehensible when an anthropologist goes into the field professing to be doing only a specific scholarly study but at the same time secretly gathering information for government agencies having nothing to do with his professed study. That is spying.

Price goes beyond this, however, when he makes the assertion that “some of the same anthropologists who spied during World War I did so in the next war” and then gives as examples: “During the early cold war Ruth Benedict and lesser-known colleagues worked for the RAND corporation and the Office of Naval Research.” And “in the Vietnam War, anthropologists worked on projects with strategic military applications.”

It is ludicrous to accuse Benedict of being a spy when she was simply a consultant on some RAND research projects. RAND is not a spy organization. I worked there for thirteen years (1956 to 1969) and do not know of any staff member that played the role of spy. Gerald Hickey, an American anthropologist, did research on the aboriginal peoples living in the highlands of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War as a RAND consultant, but he did so openly, not covertly. He has published his findings in a two-volume work–Ethnohistory of the Vietnamese Central Highlands–published by Yale University Press in 1982.

This brings up an important ethical issue, not discussed by Price, that must be faced by all anthropologists once their fieldwork findings have been published: They lose all control as to how their findings will be used by anyone. And no matter how careful anthropologists may be in writing up their findings, they cannot predict how their findings will be used, whether to help or to hinder the people being studied. I have had to face this ethical issue as a research anthropologist during the many years I have spent studying male homosexual behaviors in Mexico. It is my belief that anthropologists have the right to choose their research topic and who sponsors their research but they also have the ethical obligation to do so with regard to the ways their research data may be used by anyone, for or against the people studied, once it is made available to the public.



While I appreciate David Price’s efforts to expose the historically seedy underbelly of American anthropology, I strongly object to his implication that anthropology graduate students who receive funding from the National Security Education Program are somehow engaged in fieldwork that is a front for espionage or that they will be required to engage in espionage as part of the NSEP’s service requirement. As an NSEP fellow currently conducting dissertation research in China, I consider his remarks inaccurate and irresponsible.

One of the post-cold war “peace dividend” programs of the senior Bush Administration, NSEP was created in the early 1990s by an act of Congress. Administered by the Defense Department, the program is similar to the older (and less conspicuously named) Fulbright program: NSEP provides money for research abroad in a wide variety of academic fields. What distinguishes NSEP from Fulbright is that it comes with a service obligation that requires recipients to make a “good faith effort” to find employment in a “security related” government agency within five years of graduation. If they cannot find such employment, they may complete their service agreement through teaching at the college level.

Hmm. Sounds ominous enough to prompt objections from any self-respecting anthropologist. Price, however, leaves out some rather crucial information that makes the NSEPs seem a little less dastardly. First, the strong objections that academics like Price expressed about the program at its inception substantially modified the final product: NSEP scholars are forbidden by law to be employed by any US government intelligence agency while engaged in their research; “security” is defined in the broadest possible terms, including such issues as sustainable development and human rights; NSEP scholars fulfill the requirement to work for the government simply by posting their résumé to the NSEP website (beyond that, they are neither assisted in finding government work nor compelled to do so); only a tiny percentage of the research funded by NSEP in the past five years has explicit links to security issues; and “security-related agencies” include more than twenty Congressional subcommittees, the International Trade Office and the Treasury Department, among others.

Price’s remarks do something far worse than paint an inaccurate picture: They also endanger NSEP fellows currently in the field, many of whom are conducting research in countries with less than cordial relations with the United States. As with other academic exchange programs, the presence of NSEP fellows is meant to encourage communication and alleviate tensions. The last thing these scholars need is to be associated, through careless remarks, with the US intelligence apparatus. In past years, Peace Corps volunteers and Fulbright scholars have suffered from such bad publicity, sometimes being arrested and expelled from their research countries.

Finally, when I received NSEP funding last spring, I felt a considerable amount of trepidation about accepting the money, not because I felt that it was morally wrong (the CIA and I both know that I don’t work for the CIA) but because I knew that in a year or two I would be seeking jobs in anthropology departments where my NSEP award might actually be a liability. I feared that I would have to constantly defend my decision to take the NSEP. Let the games begin.



Olympia, Wash.

I have nothing to add to historian of anthropology William Peace’s astute observations regarding anthropology’s need to come to grips with its hidden cold war past. Joseph Carrier’s and Adam Frank’s letters, however, require some comment.

Joseph Carrier worked so hard to misrepresent my writing that some of what he writes doesn’t even make sense. He claims that my mention of Benedict’s RAND affiliation, or various anthropologists’ Vietnam work, are examples of anthropologists who spied in World War I returning to do so again in “the next war.” The next war I referred to was of course World War II, not Vietnam; Benedict was not even in WWI, and RAND didn’t exist until 1948. Likewise, Carrier mixes two separate sentences to give the false impression that I accuse Benedict of being a spy.

Carrier claims I lump undercover spies with anthropologists openly working for the government. I don’t. I do examine the historical reasons that the American Anthropological Association does not have explicit prohibitions against both espionage and secret research (two different things) and note that the historic reasons the AAA removed its ban on espionage and secret research were linked to the concerns of contract anthropologists working for both public and private agencies.

An old RAND hand like Carrier (co-author of the 1966 RAND counterinsurgency study of factors inducing Viet Cong defections, Viet Cong Motivations and Morale) knows that the beauty of RAND is that it is not simply a haven for current and former intelligence folks; it instead hosts a mix of social scientists, policy wonks, number crunchers and others working on classified as well as unrestricted projects. Lots of useful things happen in such a climate, though the “usefulness” of these is not always widely circulated. That anthropologists work on research projects that are kept secret from research subjects (as Ruth Benedict did in the mentioned 1948 study that RAND classified as restricted) does not trouble anthropologists like Carrier, but it should trouble us all.

Adam Frank is simply wrong to claim I implied NSEP recipients are necessarily spies or that they are required to engage in espionage. He is, however, correct in stating that it was due to the concerns and activism of scholars such as myself that bans now exist on NSEP participants conducting espionage while visiting foreign countries–though we were unsuccessful in getting similar bans extending to the period after the grants. It was, of course, this post-grant “payback” period that clearly was the focus of my single sentence regarding the NSEP, and given the central importance of informed consent in ethics codes from Nuremberg to the present, this is not a trifling matter. Let me be clear: My concern with NSEP derives from the inherent conflict it presents to practitioners in a field whose commitment and loyalty must be to those we study–not those who pay our way through graduate school.

I do not know who told Frank that his only mandated payback to NSEP was “posting [his] résumé to the NSEP website.” This is clearly not true. The Defense Department states that all grantees must post résumés and seek federal employment at an NSEP-approved national security-oriented agency. Participants are allowed to request that their résumés not be circulated among the CIA, DIA and NSA–though the FBI (with its new offices in Russia, Mexico, Hungary and elsewhere abroad), the State Department and many other agencies that are the soft-core interface of our national security state’s apparatus do not appear on this list of off-limits agencies (see

Incidentally, just in case Frank was planning not to follow through with the required “good faith effort” to seek national security-related employment upon graduation, he should be forewarned that NSEP’s policy states that “recipients are required to reimburse the U.S. Government for the full amount of assistance provided by the NSEP Fellowship, plus interest, should they fail to fulfill the service requirement.” True, NSEP fellows can fulfill their payback requirement at US institutions of higher education after their good-faith effort to find employment at NSEP-approved government agencies, but given the job market for anthropologists, anyone counting on repaying NSEP through such an anticipated maneuver is living in denial.

NSEP’s commitment to oiling the revolving doors between the academy and the national security state goes against the grain of anthropologist Ralph Beals’s sage observation, over thirty years ago, that “the research data obtained for one purpose should not…be used for another without the consent of the individual[s] involved.” Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, a specialist in anthropological ethics, notes that anthropologists must describe and disclose “to the people studied, to the best of his or her knowledge, the intent of the research; the methodology by which it is to be carried out; the source of financial support; and the possible outcomes of the research.” Under this most basic concept of informed consent, anthropologists receiving NSEP funding must inform those they study that upon their graduation they are required to seek employment from a limited list of national security-related government agencies. But I am sure that Adam Frank has done this in Shanghai and that the University of Texas has required him to do so in compliance with its Human Subject Review Board’s policies.

I am glad to see that Frank is outraged that he and other anthropologists can be mistaken as spies. This disturbs me too. I would encourage Frank and other anthropologists to write members of the AAA’s Ethics Committee and urge revisions of the AAA’s Ethics Code so that it once again explicitly prohibits secret research and espionage. Those we study should not assume we aren’t spies unless we at least declare we aren’t. I take heart that AAA president Louise Lamphere has shown sincere concern about revelations of past links between anthropologists and intelligence agencies. Two months ago Lamphere devoted a large portion of the AAA’s annual business meeting to an examination of historical evidence and ethical implications of past associations between the CIA and the AAA. Who knows, the association may be poised for a reconsideration of its lack of explicit prohibitions on covert research and work for intelligence agencies.