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.