If CIA Calls, Should Anthropology Answer?

Scholarly association starts process to consider ethical rules associated with working with national security agencies.
September 1, 2006

Anthropologists have a long history of being uncertain about how close they should get to the U.S. government. Many anthropologists helped intelligence agencies in World War I and World War II, but from Vietnam on, most have resisted any such work. And for most of that time, the Pentagon and CIA have not exactly been calling anthropology departments looking for guidance.

But post-9/11, everything is different. New federal fellowships aim to provide government support for graduate work in anthropology (and other fields helpful for understanding global cultures) in return for pledges of working for the government. This year, the Central Intelligence Agency posted some job ads on the American Anthropological Association Web site, and when the CIA tried to have those ads appear in the association's journals, some took them and others turned them down -- amid considerable debate among members.

As a result of these discussions, the association has created a special committee that will try to figure out the ethical issues involved with working for national security agencies, with the possible goal of adding guidelines to the association's code of ethics. Anthropologists on the committee and those who track these issues say that they are extremely difficult for many scholars.

In a hypothetical situation where the Pentagon asks you for information about a tribe or group you have studied, the information provided could lead to good or harm -- and the decision not to provide information might lead the government to take a harmful action as well, said James L. Peacock, a professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and chair of the new committee. "That's the dilemma. If you abstain from providing information and something happens, is that ethical? But if you become implicated, is that ethical?"

Peacock, who studies Muslim groups in Indonesia, has never worked for the U.S. government, but the association's committee includes some scholars who have.

David Price, an anthropology professor at Saint Martin's University, in Washington State, and also a member of the committee, said that his main concern is secrecy. He said that he would be inclined to answer questions from an intelligence agency -- provided he had permission to post online everything he said once the meeting was over. The way to protect the interests of the people being studied is to keep everything in the open, he said.

Price has just finished writing Anthropology at War: American Anthropologists' Contributions to the Second World War, forthcoming from Duke University Press. Price said that professors did many things to help the U.S. government, such as advising officials on how to phrase leaflets encouraging Japanese soldiers to surrender and how to communicate with the Japanese public. When the war broke out, he said, anthropologists who had lived in remote Asian villages found themselves being asked questions -- and having to think through the ethics involved.

The central problem, he said, is one of informed consent. Anthropologists now feel that they have an obligation to tell those they study what they will do with their knowledge. If the CIA asks about research done a decade ago, "how can there be informed consent?" Price asked.

Hugh Gusterson, a professor of cultural studies at George Mason University, said informed consent is also his key issue. Gusterson has written in anthropology publications, warning of the dangers of working for intelligence agencies.

"My feeling is that anthropologists' primary ethical contract is with the people they study. Their loyalty to their government has to come after their ethical obligation to the people they study," he said.

Gusterson stressed that this isn't a matter of politics. For example, he studies nuclear scientists, most of whom work for governments. If anti-nuclear groups -- with whom Gusterson has sympathy -- came to him to ask questions such as what kinds of signs might really cause a nuclear scientist to reconsider the work being done in a lab, or who in a lab might be open to leaving, Gusterson said he would never tell. To do so would betray a trust, he said.

At the same time, Gusterson said that many of these issues are "in a gray zone." Many anthropologists who would never want to brief the CIA would be pleased to advise journalists or give a public lecture about a group they have studied that suddenly has become newsworthy. And many would think "that they could brief Donald Rumsfeld with a clean conscience," trying to explain to him why he shouldn't do something harmful to some group they had studied.

There are certain "clearly dirty areas to avoid," he said -- "if you study enemies of the United States and then give information that will be used to kill them." But he also said that there are plenty of situations where one might not know how information would be used -- and that still doesn't address the issues of informed consent.

Gusterson said he was very pleased to see the anthropology association creating the committee. He said he hoped for guidance, but said he was unsure that it would be possible to have precise rules for every situation. And he added that it was also important for academics to respect free speech. While Gusterson said he would never work for the CIA, he said it was wrong for some anthropology journals to reject their advertising.

Anthropologists who work for intelligence agencies could not be reached for this article. Peacock, the committee chair, said he believed there were very few of them, although he stressed that their actions could affect other scholars. If anthropologists working abroad are seen to be military spies, they could be endangered or lose the trust of those they study, he said.

Others, however, argue that the overriding issue should be the need to protect the United States. The Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program, which provides generous stipends in return for government service, is one of the efforts that has attracted scholars' attention. Peacock said that the anthropology association has fielded questions from professors about whether it is ethical to encourage their students to sign up. The program was created out of the belief that U.S. intelligence agencies have been weakened by lacking expertise in many foreign cultures and societies.

Writing last year in National Review, Stanley Kurtz said that U.S. troops depend on better foreign intelligence and he castigated "leftist professors" for not supporting the Roberts program. He also said that this was part of a pattern in which, "for decades, area studies professors have undermined scholarship programs designed to bring knowledgeable recruits into our defense and intelligence agencies."

Of course sometimes anthropologists have in fact sided with the U.S. government -- and later not been proud of the results. Franz Boas, one of the founders of American anthropology and one of the first presidents of the American Anthropological Association, was censured by it 1919 after he criticized scholars who served as spies during World War I. Writing in The Nation, Boas said that anthropologists need to preserve a distinction between spies and scholars, who must be dedicated to "the service of truth." The article so upset his fellow anthropologists that they voted to condemn him.

It was only last year that the association rescinded the censure.


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