A Phoenix Rising?


In July 2005 the U.S. Army initiated a $20 million counterinsurgency program called the Human Terrain System (HTS). The program consists of five-person "human terrain teams" featuring anthropologists and other social scientists embedded with combat brigades. One team was deployed to Afghanistan in February 2007 and five more to Iraq in summer 2007. Some of the social scientists wear combat fatigues and carry weapons. 

Last September, Defense Secretary Robert Gates authorized a $40 million expansion of the HTS program. Approximately 25 additional teams will deploy in 2008, with social scientists earning up to $300,000 for a year-long deployment, according to some reports. 

Many details regarding the program are unknown. Uncritical reports in the New York Times, the Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, and CNN have portrayed HTS as a life-saving initiative that is establishing a kinder, gentler U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, although there is no verifiable data that human terrain teams have saved a single life—American, Afghan, Iraqi, or otherwise. Such reports have all the trappings of a no-holds-barred Pentagon public relations campaign. 

The international press has been far less sympathetic. For example, a November 2 editorial in Mexico’s daily newspaper La Jornada responded to HTS by noting, "The grotesque cultural mask of counterinsurgent anthropology does not change the brutal nature of an imperialist occupation." Such reactions are perhaps not surprising, given the history of U.S. social scientists’ participation in Project Camelot, the ill-fated Pentagon research program designed to employ social scientists for counterinsurgency research in Latin America. 

 

A CORDS/Phoenix detention in Vietnam

Even more disturbing is the fact that some military analysts (notably Jacob Kipp, historian at the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office [FMSO] at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas) have openly described HTS as "A CORDS for the 21st Century"—a reference to Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support, a Vietnam War-era counterguerrilla initiative. CORDS gave birth to the infamous Phoenix Program, in which South Vietnamese and U.S. agents used intelligence data to help target some 26,000 suspected communists for assassination, including many civilians. At the time, CORDS was publicly heralded as a humanitarian effort to win "hearts and minds," while Phoenix simultaneously (and secretly) functioned as its paramilitary arm. This dubious history provides a critical reference point for understanding the potential uses of HTS, even as proponents of the new program use it to whitewash General David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency efforts. 

Many aspects of HTS raise troubling concerns about the potential abuse of social science by the Pentagon, its subcontractors, and the broader military-industrial complex. These concerns range from the possibility that social science data could be used to target suspected enemies for assassination to the lack of transparency about the program to the ethical problems posed by battlefield anthropology. Many are wondering whether wartime collaboration in secretive military projects "prostitutes science in an unpardonable way," as Franz Boas (a founder of American anthropology) wrote in 1919 in response to anthropologists doing spy work during World War I. 

A Brief History 

As a concept, human terrain reveals much about the Pentagon worldview. The term portrays people as territory to be conquered, as if flesh and blood human beings were a geophysical landscape. Consider the recent words of U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Edward Villacres, who leads a human terrain team in Iraq whose goal is to "help the brigade leadership understand the human dimension of the environment that they are working in, just like a map analyst would try to help them understand the bridges, and the rivers, and things like that." This is the language of conquest: it transforms people into things.

Human terrain’s reactionary roots date back at least 40 years when the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) issued a 1968 report singling out the Black Panthers and other militant groups as enemies of the state. The report, entitled "Guerrilla Warfare Advocates in the United States," included an appendix that stated, "traditional guerrilla warfare…[is] carried out by irregular forces, which just about always dispose of inferior weapons and logistical support in general, but which possess the ability to seize and retain the initiative through a superior control of the human terrain." The implication was clear: defusing "guerrilla warfare advocates" such as the Black Panthers would require the U.S. government to wrest control of urban populations. 

In the same report, HUAC suggested that urban unrest might require that the president declare an "internal security emergency" which would enable the 1950 Internal Security Act authorizing detention of suspected spies or saboteurs. (Much of the law was repealed in the 1970s, but some elements were restored in the PATRIOT Act.) 

Human terrain appeared again in The War for the Cities, a 1972 book by right-wing journalist Robert Moss. In the 1970s Moss edited Foreign Report, a confidential journal affiliated with the Economist that frequently published sensational rumors from intelligence agencies around the world. (At least one of Moss’s books was reportedly funded by the CIA as pro-Pinochet propaganda.) Like HUAC, Moss examined the threat of diverse "urban guerrillas," including the Black Panthers, Students for Democratic Society, and Latin American insurgents. Human terrain appeared in reference to the latter: "[T]he failure of the rural guerrillas to enlist large-scale peasant backing in most areas also showed up in their distorted view of the political potential of the peasantry and their failure to study the human terrain…. Che Guevara’s ill-conceived Bolivian campaign was the supreme example of these deficiencies." Again, human terrain was linked to social control. 

After a hiatus, human terrain resurfaced in 2000, when retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters wrote an influential article entitled "The Human Terrain of Urban Operations." In it, he argued that it is the "human architecture" of a city, its "human terrain…the people, armed and dangerous, watching for exploitable opportunities, or begging to be protected, who will determine the success or failure of the intervention." He described a typology of cities ("hierarchical," "multicultural," and "tribal") and the challenges that each present to military forces operating there: "the center of gravity in urban operations is never a presidential palace or a television studio or a bridge or a barracks. It is always human." 

For years Peters has espoused a bloody version of Samuel Huntington’s "clash of civilizations" 1967 thesis: "There will be no peace…. The de facto role of the U.S. armed forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assault. To those ends, we will do a fair amount of killing. We are building an information-based military to do that killing…much of our military art will consist in knowing more about the enemy than he knows about himself, manipulating data for effectiveness and efficiency, and denying similar advantages to our opponents." 

As Peters’s ideas began circulating, others gradually adopted human terrain. Since the publication of his human terrain article, dozens of intelligence agents, military analysts, Pentagon officials, pundits, and reporters have adopted the term. 

In 2006 Jacob Kipp and colleagues from FMSO took the idea a step further by outlining a plan for HTS in the journal Military Review. According to Kipp, U.S. Army Captain Don Smith led the implementation of HTS from July 2005 to August 2006 in order to better "understand the people among whom our forces operate as well as the cultural characteristics and propensities of the enemies we now fight." 

Embedded Social Scientists 

In early 2007 FMSO contracted the British company BAE Systems to begin recruiting social scientists for "cultural analyst" and "regional studies analyst" positions in human terrain teams. (Later, MTC Technologies and Wexford Group, a division of CACI, would also recruit team members.) According to a former team member, BAE Systems is the contractor responsible for HTS administrative duties and training. Members of human terrain teams are employed by BAE Systems. Technically speaking, they are subcontractors to the military and, as such, they are not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, just as Blackwater employees in Iraq are not.

 

Human Terrain Team member interviews men during a cordon and search operation in Afghanistan, June 2007—photo from U.S. Dept of Defense

Proponents of HTS, such as Colonel John Agoglia, insist that the teams "are extremely helpful in terms of giving commanders on the ground an understanding of the cultural patterns of interaction, the nuances of how to interact with those cultural groups on the ground." However, Kipp’s description of HTS reveals that the goal of the program involves more than facilitating cross-cultural encounters: it is designed to improve the "gathering" and "operational application" of "local population knowledge"—regionally specific data on political leadership, kinship groups, economic systems, and agricultural production. Furthermore, Kipp and his colleagues describe a process by which this information will be sent to a central database accessible to other U.S. government agencies including, presumably, the CIA. Furthermore, "databases will eventually be turned over to the new governments of Iraq and Afghanistan to enable them to more fully exercise sovereignty over their territory." The human terrain teams will supply brigade commanders with "deliverables" such as a "user-friendly ethno-graphic and socio- cultural database of the area of operations that can provide the commander data maps showing specific ethnographic or cultural features." 

According to former human terrain team member Zenia Helbig, teams use a software package developed by the Mitre Corporation called Mapping Human Terrain (MAP-HT). Kipp and his colleagues described MAP-HT as "an automated database and presentation tool that allows teams to gather, store, manipulate, and provide cultural data from hundreds of categories." The Secretary of Defense’s 2007 budget justification describes MAP-HT as "a means for commanders and their supporting operations sections to collect data on human terrain, create, store, and disseminate information from this data, and use the resulting information as an element of combat power." It also allocates $4.5 million for MAP-HT between 2007 and 2009. 

 

Social Scientist Dr. David Kilcullen (right), counterinsurgency advisor to Gen. Petraeus, counsels U.S. military officers, June 2007—photo from the U.S. Army

 

HTS supporters have unconvincingly argued that such a database would not necessarily be used to target Iraqis or Afghans. In a radio interview, an HTS architect stated: "The intent of the program is not to identify who the bad actors are out there. The military has an entire intelligence apparatus geared and designed to provide that information to them. That is not the information that they need from social scientists." She claimed that HST social scientists have "a certain amount of discretion" with data, while providing no evidence that safeguards exist to prevent others from using it against informants. When asked about lack of independent oversight, she answered: "We would like to set up a board of advisors. At the moment, however, this program is proof of concept…. [I]t’s not a permanent program. It’s an experiment." 

An experiment without basic ethical safeguards, it might be added, for Kipp notes that "[to] ensure that any data obtained through the HTS does not become unnecessarily fettered or made inaccessible to the large numbers of soldiers and civilians routinely involved in stability operations, the information and databases assembled by the HTS will be unclassified" and presumably available for use by the CIA, Special Operations teams, Iraqi police, the Afghan government, or military contractors—any of whom might use the data for nefarious ends. A detailed HTS database could easily be employed for targeting suspected insurgents and sympathizers; for custom-made propaganda campaigns designed to frighten Iraqis and Afghans into accepting foreign control; for co-opting local leaders for a system of indirect rule; or for imperial policing missions in occupied countries. 

Models, Simulations, and "Kill Chains" 

Pentagon budgets reflect an increasing commitment to "cultural knowledge" acquisition. Consequently, engineers, mathematicians, and computer scientists have demonstrated acute interest in human terrain for modeling, simulation, and gaming programs. 

Among them is Barry Silverman, a University of Pennsylvania engineering professor, who bluntly asks in his most recent article title: "Human Terrain Data—What Should We Do with It?" Silverman has been at the forefront of efforts to develop computerized behavior modeling programs designed to provide insight into the motivations of terrorists and their networks and he hopes to integrate HTS data into these programs. According to the engineering journal IEEE Spectrum, "A Silverman simulation is an astoundingly sophisticated amalgamation of more than 100 models and theories from anthropology, psychology, and political science, combined with empirical data taken from medical and social science field research, surveys, and experiments." The goal is to predict how various actors—"a terrorist, a soldier, or an ordinary citizen"—might react to "a gun pointed in the face, a piece of chocolate offered by a soldier…. [Silverman] is now simulating a small society of about 15,000 leader and follower agents organized into tribes, which squabble over resources."

At the heart of Silverman’s simulations are "performance moderator functions" representing "physical stressors such as ambient temperature, hunger, and drug use; resources such as time, money, and skills; attitudes such as moral outlook, religious feelings, and political affiliations; and personality dispositions such as response to time pressure, workload, and anxiety." Such information might conceivably be used to fine tune propaganda campaigns and psychological warfare techniques. 

Silverman makes grand claims about the potential utility of HTS data for human profiling, though he has apparently not obtained it yet. "The HT datasets are an invaluable resource that will permit us in the human behavior M&S [modeling and simulation] field to more realistically profile factions, and their leaders and followers." 

Similarly, a Dartmouth research team has created the Laboratory for Human Terrain, focused on "the foundational science and technology for modeling, representing, inferring, and analyzing individual and organizational behaviors." It includes an engineer, a mathematician, and a computer scientist who specialize in "adversarial intent modeling, simulation, and prediction," "dynamic social network analysis," and "discovery of hidden relationships and organizations." The Pentagon awarded a grant to members of the Dartmouth group to develop a "Dynamic Adversarial Gaming Algorithm" (DAGA) for "predicting how individuals or groups…react to social, cultural, political, and economic interactions…. DAGA can evaluate how rhetoric from religious leaders combined with recent allied killing of radical military leaders, and perceptions of potential economic growth can cause shifts in support form moderate or radical leadership." 

There currently are a wide range of wartime simulation projects being developed, including Purdue University’s "Synthetic Environment for Analysis and Simulation," which, according to Wired magazine, can "gobble up breaking news, census data, economic indicators, and climactic events in the real word, along with proprietary information such as military intelligence. Iraq and Afghanistan computer models are the most highly developed and complex. Each has about five million individual nodes that represent entities such as hospitals, mosques, pipelines, and people." HTS data could conceivably be incorporated into this computer model. 

The Air Force Research Lab has requested proposals for modeling programs and one suggests that "researchers should investigate cultural, motivational, historical, political, and economic data to determine if there are mathematical and statistical models that can be used to predict the formation of terrorist activities…[the] goal is to determine sets of actions that can influence the root cause behaviors and cultivate a culture that does not support the development of criminal activity." The Navy has requested proposals for a "Human, Social, and Culture Behavioral Modeling" simulation tool resembling a video game: "We are looking for innovative ideas that explore and harness the power of advanced interactive multimedia computer games (e.g. ‘sim games’)…[incorporating] the best-practices of the videogame industry, including intuitive controls, story-telling, user-feedback…scenario editing, and high quality graphics and sound."

These programs focus on modeling and simulation, but it is not difficult to imagine that in the near future, agents might use cultural profiles to pre-emptively target statistically probable (rather than actual) insurgents or extremists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or other countries deemed to be terrorist havens. 

Some Pentagon officials have already begun contemplating such applications. In February 2007 a dazzlingly illustrated PowerPoint presentation was released, which unambiguously stated a "need to ‘Map the Human Terrain’ across the kill chain…for the GWOT [Global War on Terror]." The presentation (by Assistant Deputy Undersecretary of Defense James Wilcox) notes that "sometimes we ID the enemy but…do not have an adequate/appropriate Strike Solution in time," indicating that at least one senior Pentagon official sees such information as a potentially useful weapon.

 

What’s Human About Human Terrain? 

HTS—and HTS data—may perform various functions simultaneously. Images of a "gentler" counterinsurgency might serve as propaganda for U.S. audiences opposed to military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, propaganda that allows us to fight wars and still feel good about ourselves. PR campaigns portraying HTS personnel as life-saving heroes might attract young scholars who hope to do good in the world—not unlike colonial civil servants bearing the "white man’s burden" a century ago. Information collected by HTSs might feed into a database accessible for use in targeting suspected insurgents for assassination. Agents might employ HTS data to design propaganda campaigns. Finally, HTS data might help create simulation and modeling programs, which could conceivably be used for profiling imagined enemies by means of statistical probability. Each of these scenarios raises grave questions about the appropriateness of embedded social scientists. 

Concerns over the program have led critics to undertake several dramatic measures. In August 2007 a group of social scientists created the Network of Concerned Anthropologists. The group drafted a Pledge of Non-Participation in Counterinsurgency, which hundreds of anthropologists signed over the past few months. In addition, the executive board of the American Anthropological Association—the largest professional anthropology organization in the U.S.—issued a statement calling HTS "an unacceptable application of anthropological expertise." 

There is reason for concern. As mentioned above, some supporters have drawn explicit connections between HTS and CORDS/Phoenix. According to investigative reporter Douglas Valentine (author of the book The Phoenix Program), Phoenix featured a computerized database, which brings to mind the MAP-HT software described above: "Phoenix was enhanced with the advent of the Viet Cong Infrastructure Information System…. [In January 1967] the Combined Intelligence Staff fed the names of 3000 VCI [Viet Cong] (assembled by hand at area coverage desks) into the IBM 1401 computer at the Combined Intelligence Center’s political order of battle section. At that point the era of the computerized blacklist began…VCIIS became the first of a series of computer programs designed to absolve the war effort of human error and war managers of individual responsibility." 

U.S. personnel collected comprehensive data for targeting: "VCIIS compiled information…on VCI boundaries, locations, structures, strengths, personalities, and activities…. [It] included summary data on each recorded VCI in the following categories: name and aliases; whether or not he or she was ‘at large’; sex, birth date, and place of birth; area of operations; party position; source of information; arrest date; how neutralized; term of sentence; where detained; release date; and other biographical and statistical information, including photographs and fingerprints, if available…. Phoenix analysts [were able] instantly to access and cross-reference data, then decide who was to be erased." 

Consequently, between 1967 and 1972, more than 26,000 people were "erased," including many civilians. Nowhere is this history mentioned in Jacob Kipp’s depiction of HTS as "CORDS for the 21st Century," yet history points to the potential dangers of computerized counterinsurgency databases. 

Some are already calling for change. Credible accounts have emerged about difficulties plaguing HTS, including missed recruitment goals, ineffective training, and paralyzing organizational issues. Former human terrain team member Zenia Helbig has publicly criticized the program, claiming that during four months of training there were no ethical discussions about the potential harm that might befall Iraqis or Afghans or the importance of voluntary informed consent. Furthermore, Helbig claims that, "HTS’s greatest problem is its own desperation. The program is desperate to hire anyone or anything that remotely falls into the category of ‘academic,’ ‘social science,’ ‘regional expert,’ or ‘PhD’," which has led to incompetence." (Of three anthropology PhDs assigned to the teams, none has appropriate regional expertise and none speak Arabic.) According to Helbig, BAE Systems (the lead HTS contractor), is more concerned with profits than adequate training for team members. Her description of the gross ineptitude and waste characterizing BAE Systems’ operations near Fort Leavenworth, Kansas indicates that the company is engaged in war profiteering. Another source (speaking on condition of anonymity) expressed outrage at the use of more than $60 million in taxpayer funds for a doomed program. 

In the future, historians may question why anthropologists—who over the past century developed the modern culture concept, critiqued Western ethnocentrism in its various guises, and invented the teach-in—decided to enlist as embedded specialists in an open-ended war of dubious legality. They might wonder why anthropologists began harvesting data on Iraqis and Afghans as a preferred method of practical real-world engagement. They might ask why, at a time when majorities in the U.S., Iraq, and Afghanistan wanted a withdrawal of U.S. troops, anthropologists supported an occupation resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians. 

To the extent that HTS peddles social science techniques and concepts in support of conquest and indirect rule, it deserves rejection. To the extent that HTS might be employed to collect intelligence or target suspected enemies for assassination, the program deserves elimination—and a period of sober reflection about the intellectual and ethical impoverishment of American social science today. 

Z 


Roberto J. González is associate professor of anthropology at San Jose State University. He is author of Zapotec Science: Farming and Food in the Northern Sierra of Oaxaca (2001) and editor of Anthropologists in the Public Sphere: Speaking Out on War, Peace, and American Power (2004). He is completing a new book entitled What’s Human About Human Terrain.