Ethics and Engagement With the Military

Panel of anthropologists rejects idea of trying to bar scholars from working with security and intelligence agencies, but calls for more awareness of risks.
November 29, 2007

A special panel of the American Anthropological Association -- after spending more than a year studying the question of whether its ethical standards should bar ties to the military and intelligence agencies -- issued a report Wednesday that recommended tighter scrutiny of such work, but explicitly affirmed the possibility that it could be conducted ethically in some cases.

"We do not oppose anthropologists engaging with the military, intelligence, defense of other institutions or organizations," the report says. "Neither, however, do we advocate that anthropologists actively seek employment or funding from national security programs. We see circumstances in which engagement can be preferable to detachment or opposition, but we recognize that certain kinds of engagement would violate the AAA Code of Ethics and thus must be called to the community's collective attention, critiqued and repudiated."

The panel called for the association to take a series of steps to clarify what may or may not be ethical. For example, it urged that the standards of informed consent should be changed to "develop specific language regarding work with vulnerable populations and contexts in which consent may not be free, voluntary, or non-coerced."

Generally, the panel stuck to broad principles and did not rule in or out categories of work. For example, while the report talks about the importance of openness, it does not rule out the possibility that anthropologists might conduct classified research that could be ethical. One hypothetical in the report is offered as an example to show how difficult it may be to declare individual projects unethical just because they violate a particular value of scholars (in this case openness). The report asks: "What if an anthropologist wants to help U.S. special forces troops deliver medical aid to people in northern Afghanistan and works with them to develop a plan, but is constrained from publishing an account of the work?"

The release of the report starts what is expected to be an intense process of discussing these issues among anthropologists. At the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association today, panel members will be holding a session to hear from members about their reactions, and representatives of federal security agencies will be talking to anthropologists about their reactions, in a session called "The Empire Speaks Back."

The panel was created following a series of debates within the profession -- and among social scientists generally -- about ties to various security agencies. Some scholars have been deeply alarmed by reports that social science work has been used by the military to figure out how to degrade or humiliate prisoners from Muslim nations. The anthropology association has had debates over whether to accept job advertising in its journals from the Central Intelligence Agency. In recent months, there has been extensive public debate over the Human Terrain System, a military program in which anthropologists have accompanied and assisted the military in dealing with local groups in Afghanistan and Iraq. (While members of the panel said that they believed that the principles they outlined could be applied to determining whether such work was ethical, and that they saw "red flags" about the program in what they had read about it, their report did not focus on the topic. The anthropology association's board has already issued a statement of opposition to that work.)

Much of the discussion of how anthropologists should respond has taken place in the context of the war in Iraq, overwhelmingly opposed by anthropologists for a variety of reasons. But for this discipline, there is a broader context as well. Many of the early anthropologists did their work alongside (and cooperating with) colonial powers in Africa and Asia, and that history illustrates to many in the field how helping the government has the potential to do serious harm to groups being studied. At the same time, the committee has taken care to stress that it is seeking to approach the issue in a way that would apply to military and intelligence agencies now or in the future, and not to frame the issues strictly around Iraq.

David H. Price, an anthropology professor at Saint Martin’s University, in Washington State, is the member of the committee best known for work criticizing the CIA and the role of anthropologists in doing harm through their work with the military and intelligence agencies. But in an interview after the press briefing, Price said that many anthropologists in World War II worked with the government in ways he considers ethical. (Price has a book on the topic forthcoming from Duke University Press, Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War.)

"There are different wars" than the one in Iraq today, Price said. "We need to transcend the current disaster."

While Price has written critically of some anthropologists' work with the government, other committee members are anthropologists who do work with the government. Committee members said that while they believe that they would make different individual choices on applying the standards in the report, they came to a consensus on the document -- after many long discussions and thousands of e-mail exchanges.

"This is not a 'thou shall not' report," said Laura McNamara, an anthropologist who works for the government at the Sandia National Laboratories (doing non-classified research, she noted). McNamara and other panel members stressed that part of their study was to determine just how many types of work anthropologists do with the military and security agencies. For all the discussion about helping the CIA spy, McNamara said most of these anthropologists are engaged in "the mundane work" that many scholars do, that their work isn't classified or controversial, and isn't widely known or understood.

She also noted that while there is "a big myth" that the military raises "unique" questions for the discipline about secrecy, she said that many anthropologists have for years done proprietary work for corporations -- without the uproar over current ties to the military.

James L. Peacock, chair of the committee and a professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that two principles were behind the panel's approach to the issue: First, do no harm. Second, be "honest and transparent about what you are doing." But Peacock (who studies Muslim groups in Indonesia and has not worked for the government) said that it was impossible to have "categorical" lists based on those principles to suggest some work that might be "taboo" and other work that would be acceptable.

The report is likely to get tough scrutiny by some anthropologists who believe certain kinds of work for the government should most certainly be taboo. The Network of Concerned Anthropologists, for example, is a group that does not rule out work for the military or security agencies, but that asks scholars to pledge "not to undertake research or other activities in support of counter-insurgency work in Iraq or in related theaters in the 'war on terror.' " Leaders of the network planned to meet last night to discuss the report, among other topics.

Hugh Gusterson, a professor of anthropology and sociology at George Mason University, and one of the organizers of the network, said in an interview Wednesday night that he hadn't yet seen the report, and so couldn't comment on it directly. But he said that there are types of anthropological work -- studying cultures or peoples outside the United States for the purpose of reporting to the CIA or the military, or working for the military in Iraq -- that he said were clearly unethical. He said that in these cases, there is no way that those being studied can provide truly free and informed consent, or that scholars can be sure no harm will come to subjects.

Gusterson stressed that he wasn't saying that all work for intelligence agencies was wrong. He said, for example, that he knows an anthropologist who works for the CIA, studying the CIA -- and that doesn't raise the same issues. To those who talk of "engagement" as a way of helping people in Iraq, Gusterson said that anthropologists concerned about the people in Iraq can help them by working to end the U.S. military presence there.

While the report issued Wednesday refuses to rule any activities in or out in a conclusive way, it spends a great deal of time talking about ethical issues that need to be considered. And the suggestion of the report is that such careful consideration might well lead many anthropologists to turn down certain kinds of work -- even if the report doesn't list them.

"While anthropologists may work in the military, intelligence, defense, or other national security settings -- informing knowledge bases, policies and practices -- without encountering serious ethical perils, many forms of engagement with these communities are potentially ethically perilous," the report says. Specifically, it notes the potential to violate ethical principles dealing with obligations to those studied, colleagues in anthropology and the broader academic community, and with transparency.

For those studied, military ties can be especially troublesome in wartime or in occupied areas, the report says. "In military settings where occupations are routinely designated 'liberations,' questions of whether anthropological knowledge is used 'for' or 'against' studied populations are complex," the report says. "Moreover, anthropologists working in military settings may face problems in achieving meaningful informed and voluntary consent from human subjects. Efforts to gain informed consent in militarized regions are at best problematic, and at worst corrupt."

Even if scholars think they have devised appropriate methods for informed consent, there are other dangers, the report warns. "Anthropologists working in military and intelligence settings risk miscalculating how their contributions will be selectively used, abused, and ignored by the agencies in which they work," the report says.

Further, the report notes that -- especially outside the United States -- the link between anthropologists and the CIA in the past is well known. Even well meaning efforts to work with intelligence agencies today risk associating all anthropologists with such a record in a way that could hinder research and make it more difficult for scholars to build trust.

"Anthropologists' engagements with the military or intelligence communities risk transforming the discipline into a tool of oppression," the report says. "Given anthropology's historical roots as a stepchild of colonialism and more recent uses of fieldwork as a front for conducting espionage, the precedence of these risks is well established. Engagement risks the recurrence of such unethical behavior. Moreover, were anthropologists perceived as aiding and abetting U.S. military aggression or (even) information collection, that perception might well inhibit other and future anthropologists from establishing relationships of hospitality or trust with study populations or colleagues who are not U.S. nationals."

At its worst, such developments could pose threats to scholars' safety, the report says. Given press attention to these issues abroad, accusations of ties to the military could put the "personal safety at risk" of anthropologists who don't work with the government in any way.

There are also, the report says, potential advantages to be derived from engagement with the military. Among those the report notes are the ability to educate the military about anthropology and its findings, expanding the field to new areas, and the chance to study important organizations such as intelligence agencies from the inside. Anthropologists who cut themselves off from such opportunities "may neglect an intellectual responsibility," the report says.

The report stresses the obligation of individual scholars to weigh the potential gains and risks of various activities, but suggests some changes in association policy to help scholars with those decisions. Specifically, the panel urged the association to revise its code of ethics to:

  • Better define when secrecy should be permitted in work and when it is inappropriate.
  • Clarify the definition of informed consent to reflect the realities of "vulnerable populations" that may be studied.
  • Differentiate between "activities that are politically distasteful and those that are ethically problematic," by focusing on such questions as "What is the ultimate intent or effect of the activity?" and "Is there any way to determine if any research will have 'detrimental' effects?"

On the question of job ads from military or intelligence agencies in association publications, the panel recommended that such ads always be flagged with a warning to consult the association's ethical guidelines. In addition, the panel recommended that a special committee be formed to evaluate "problematic ads," which might be for positions that might violate standards. In some cases, that committee might want to leave the ad out, but to publish contact information for the employer, the report says, "to alert AAA members to both opportunities and to risks."

Alan Goodman, a professor at Hampshire College who is president of the anthropology association, said that he viewed the report as starting what he expected to be a deliberative evaluation of the issues by the group's members. Both because the issues are complicated, and because of the "culture clash" between academic and military values, he said that this isn't a process that can be wrapped up quickly.

If anthropologists don't reach a quick consensus, they won't be the first discipline to have trouble with these issues. The American Psychological Association in August strengthened its stand against members in any way helping the government with torture, but many think that association didn't go far enough to limit the role of psychologists in helping with interrogations -- and some college psychology departments are disassociating themselves from the stance taken by the association.


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