HTS Double Agent Promises Scandal but Comes Up Short
John Allison is a human terrain team social scientist who went through training at Fort Leavenworth and then resigned before going down range. In the last few days, he’s published a 54 page scathing critique of HTS and what he calls the military industrial complex in the blog, Zero Anthropology (http://zeroanthropology.net/2010/12/05/the-leavenworth-diary-double-agent-anthropologist-inside-the-human-terrain-system/). He quotes scholar David Price at various points, which added to my initial impression that maybe he’d have something intelligent to say about the relevant debate.
He doesn’t. I’m disappointed. His writing amounts to an insider report that promises revelations of scandalous proportions but turns into a polemical diatribe against HTS and the military industrial complex with minimal ethnographic or other support for most of his assertions.
I can’t figure out if he’s an archeologist or a cultural anthropologist. In either case,(1) he doesn’t appear to have applied his training to understanding the culture of the military, the dynamics between social scientists and defense contractors with prior military experience, and between contractors and active duty military personnel associated with various units that are trained in different ways. He’s also not tried to understand the dynamics of the multitude of organizations involved in HTS and how they contribute to the good and bad in the program.
Allison admits that he entered the program with the notion of changing the military mindset and then goes on to criticize the military for trying to do the same thing in Afghanistan – by encouraging Americanization (colonialism/ideological imperialism of whatever you want to call it ) and the implementation of a government that will work in the interests of the U.S. (I don’t dispute the latter goal. I’m just noting the contradiction in the way Allison thinks).
He seems to view his photographs of the building in which HTS is housed as uncovering the location of some kind of black-ops operation because training takes place in a basement, and the door is dark and labeled in such a way as to discourage unauthorized persons from entry. BIG DEAL!!! You have to get an I.D. to go upstairs in just about any building in New York City as well as police and other security related facilities. That doesn’t mean these buildings house big secrets or some sort of off the books torture chamber for detainees (no he doesn’t claim that – it’s just a metaphor).
The sad part of his report is that he doesn’t appear to have developed the kind of relationships with retired military and active duty personnel that would allow them to share insights into their way of thinking and create a dialogue. I can guarantee they don’t all think alike.
Allison claims that HTS is mainly a form of PR to make the public think we are mainly involved in the touchy- feely politics of cultural understanding rather than lethal operations down range. This isn’t the case. The military is involved in both types of operations and HTS, whether successful or not, wasn’t and isn’t intended to serve PR purposes alone. Some in HTS believe in the COIN mission of winning hearts and minds and would find it problematic to get involved directly in kinetic operations. Others wouldn’t think twice. In either case, the counterinsurgency goal of HTS teams is a lot more complex than Allison claims.
I agree with Allison on a few things and sort of agree on a few others but think he’s being simplistic:
l. I don’t like current reporting on the war(s). My reasons are different from Allison’s. I don’t like that we don’t see the dead and mutilated bodies of our soldiers, “the enemy,” or the civilians who are killed accidentally or as part of some other type of collateral damage. The war is sanitized for public consumption and so we remain passive in letting it go on.
2. Soldiers are trained to kill and to obey their commanders and go through the chain of command. This means that many of those in HTS who have been or are in the military may have fewer qualms about how HTS intelligence (“data”) is used by brigade commanders than some social scientists who are trained to protect human subjects. At the same time, I know of military personnel who are adamantly opposed to HTS getting involved in lethal operations and one or two social scientists who couldn’t care less if they did.
3. He is right, from what I have heard, that the training in research methods is a waste of time.
4.He claims BAE and the subcontractor that hired him are in cahoots because someone from BAE did his exit interview rather than someone in his firm. That’s totally ridiculous! The person at BAE contractors was assigned the role of facilitating the exit of personnel associated with HTS. Whether or not Allison’s subcontractor also has an exit procedure is up to them. Most subcontractors do. Maybe his didn’t. Sure the prime and its subcontractors attempt to have good relationships. After all both profit from sending qualified personnel down range. Allison appears to advocate a conspiracy theory about HTS and the contracting world that does not do justice to the complexity of the relationships.
On the other hand, a network analysis of the relationships between difference defense contractors down range and at home and members of congress and high ranking persons in the military etc. would be illuminating although I don’t know what it would illuminate.
6. Out of the blue, Allison claims that human terrain teams are involved in targeting. He gives no support to his claim. This may be true in some cases as a result of team decisions. It may be true in others as a result of individuals secretly sharing information. It may not be true in yet others, depending on the team. Yes. It’s true that brigade commanders can use information in any way they see fit and that could include targeting. It’s still a very far stretch to go from Allison’s experience in training to claiming that HTTs are routinely used in purposefully gathering intelligence for targeting.
In summary – Allison’s purported expose hits the dust and fizzles out under the weight of the author’s megalomania (his I know everything and more than you do mentality) and his lack of ability to use the skills in anthropology he apparently was taught. On the other hand, maybe he’s an archeologist and knows a lot about how to construct history from artifacts but not much about people and organizations. Then it’s the fault of HTS for hiring him.
(1) I have deleted the inflammatory “shame on him” that appeared in the original post.
(2) I have also deleted a reference to archeologists that could be interpreted as disrespectful to the field