Discussions from the early ASA blog

On the Moos controversy

John Gledhill wrote:
One of my first duties as incoming chair of the ASA was to field a large number of media enquiries, mainly in Britain but some also from the USA, about the disquiet expressed in the pages of Anthropology Today last year about the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program (PRISP). I have been asked to inaugurate the ASA’s new Ethics blog with some further comments about this. In contrast to the general framing of our new ethics initiative that appears on the ASA website, what follows should be read as personal point of view, not an official statement, from someone who is strongly committed to supporting political action orientated to producing a more equal and just distribution of global economic resources, a longstanding critic of the way US power in my principal research area, Latin America, has worked against that goal, and a persistent advocate of the need to complete the process of decolonizing and provincializing Northern anthropologies.

Let me begin by rehearsing a few basic facts about PRISP, drawn from the work of David Price and other material easily found on the Internet, to put the controversy into some kind of proportion. The scheme is currently a pilot, offering less than 150 students a year a bursary of up to US $25,000 annually if they commit to a career in US intelligence agencies (including but not restricted to the CIA). Entry is restricted to US citizens who can pass background security checks and have attained a minimum GPA of 3.4. Successful applicants are required to complete a summer internship in an agency and to participate in closed meetings with fellow PRISP scholars and agency officials. Although PRISP is the brainchild of Professor Felix Moos, an anthropologist at the University of Kansas whose forty-four year career has been consistently dedicated to fostering collaboration between academic anthropologists and the military and intelligence communities in the interests of fostering national defence and security at home and abroad, it is not restricted to students in anthropology programs. PRISP is interested in recruiting scholars with linguistic and other kinds of area expertise on regions of the world currently thought to be strategic in terms of terrorist threats and US interests more generally.

People of my age therefore feel a rather ironic dejá vu sensation. Having lived through the Cold War period in which “area studies” was perceived as useful by the intelligence community and subsequently witnessed proclamations of its “death” in the era of globalization, we now find old conceptions resuscitated in a post 9/11 context which allows Professor Moos to reassert his longstanding preoccupations, yet now in terms of “global challenges” no longer coupled to nation state rivalries or conflicts confined to “one particular culture or one geographical setting” (these quotes are from his response in AT 21(3)). As an association, the ASA has echoed the concerns of US-based scholars such as David Price and Hugh Gusterson with the multiple implications of the secrecy with which PRISP is surrounded. We do not know who students funded by PRISP are or where they are located, and the consequences of secrecy may go far beyond anything that might be justified at present in terms of the functioning and results to date of what is still a comparatively tiny program that will hopefully not win approval for future extension if our criticisms are effective. As things stand, PRISP’s generously funded anthropology graduates may yet simply disappear into the backrooms of US national security agencies and never enter the field overseas either as professional spies or (in the worst case scenario from our professional point of view) as spies using anthropological research as a cover for activities that would violate the ethical codes of their own or other national professional associations of anthropologists. That the latter is a worst case scenario is amply demonstrated by past experience. Efforts by foreign anthropologists to serve “national interests” abroad sometimes led to serious violations of our ethical commitment not to do harm to our research subjects, some intentional, and some the product of a failure to think through the likely implications of action in the longer term. One of the most tragic illustrations of the latter is the enduring damage done to the Montagnards of Vietnam and Cambodia as erstwhile anti-communist assets turned into an embarrassment for official US government sponsorship once circumstances changed. This is one of the most serious ethical issues that those seeking to exploit the local knowledge and trust produced by anthropological researchers to further the agendas of their home states have to confront. It was a driving force behind revisions of anthropology’s ethical codes in the wake of the Vietnam conflict and brutal counter-insurgency wars through proxies in other regions, notably Central America. But even if PRISP does not itself lead to a direct replication of these past forms of collaboration between anthropologists and national security agencies, the covert nature of the scheme and the association it creates between studying anthropology and interfering in local social and political affairs to serve foreign interests is likely to increase suspicions about the possible hidden agendas of all researchers.

As Richard Fardon has noted, by “rubbing off” on all anthropologists and undermining trust, PRISP threatens to poison international collaborative relations across national boundaries. Many of us would see the construction of sustained, open and mutually respectful international collaborative relations as essential to the construction of a post-imperial anthropology better equipped to produce an understanding of the “more complex” world that Professor Moos invokes. Professor Moos himself does not seem unduly concerned with the issue of international trust and cordiality, to judge from the robustness of his published responses to critics (which include the proposition that it doesn’t really matter if people abroad don’t like North Americans). Yet there are clearly a number of different perspectives from which his dismissal of counter-arguments could be contested.

The professional self-interest of academic anthropologists is not the most important of these, let alone whether or not schemes such as PRISP will actually produce better intelligence and more effective US interventions in global affairs. Nevertheless, the latter is worth further consideration. It is far from clear to me (or to some of the other commentators I mentioned earlier) whether closed debates within security agencies are more effective than the use of published sources and the more open kinds of dialogues between academics and national security professionals that would allow more sceptical thinking to flourish. The problem is that more public debate allows too much scope for worrying about moral impediments to decisive geopolitical action (such as mass civilian “collateral damage”), opens more space for discussion about how far expert knowledge can actually reliably predict, let alone direct, the future course of events, and empowers dissenting minorities within the security apparatus itself. Secrecy is an effective way of covering up ignorance and doubt. This is important given that real rather than public reasons of state are often not identical. More open debates tend to expose to greater critical scrutiny the possible premises of national states’ global strategies and the role of different political, commercial and military backstage interests in shaping the behaviour of democratic governments. This is certainly not a simple question of Right versus Left. In many Latin American countries, for example, members of deeply socially conservative elite groups have expressed deep and genuine concern about the appalling human costs of the “liberation” of Iraq, the real motivations for intervention and the continuing uncertainties about future developments in the region.

But ultimately we need to put PRISP into a much wider context, that created by the discourse of global wars against terror and the need to use secrecy as a means of protecting our citizens, the same reasoning that is used to justify courts in which the accused cannot know the evidence against them. This kind of experience is not exactly novel in the United States (read Fernando Coronil’s account of his own experiences in the Preface to his book The Magical State, for example). But defenders of civil liberties and human rights now confront a mounting “state of exception” in which advocates of the view that open societies can only be defended successfully by accepting the vulnerabilities to which they are subject risk accusations of disloyalty amid increasingly strident calls for the cultivation of national identity as patriotic virtue and abandonment of “multiculturalism”. Professor Moos himself responds to most expressions of doubt by repeating the litany that “we” are “at war”. It appears that this is a war with an enemy whose diffuseness and facelessness multiplies suspects and potential threats, a war which “will not be of short duration”, though what would constitute “victory” perhaps remains a little too uncomfortably unstated. I find it difficult to decide whether I find the paranoia inherent in this perspective more disturbing than the way in which it threatens to silence debate about the less noble aspects of recent Anglo-American foreign policy, but what I am convinced of is that anthropologists need to maintain a strong critical distance from this kind of proposition. We need to think about Professor Moos’s position in a historically contextualized way that would remind us of the grim lessons of previous experience while also enabling us to treat it anthropologically in terms of understandings of how the social and cultural history of the United States relates to its politics.

Fortunately, it seems clear that most anthropologists in the United States itself remain reluctant to embrace the transcendent “we” and categorical imperatives of Professor Moos’s vision. For that reason we need to look beyond PRISP and other related US developments to the broader problems of which they are simply minor symptoms. I hope that this blog will open up a space for full and wide-ranging reflections on these dilemmas and how a much more inclusive, international “we” can face up to them. Let us be clear, though, that the challenges facing anthropology (and other researchers working within cross-cultural and transnational frameworks) are growing today, even if some of them have past precedents. Developments over the past twenty years have made university autonomy increasingly precarious and pressures of funding, marketing our services and employment for our graduates have continued to increase in intensity. A further intensification of global intelligence gathering efforts on the part of states, linked to the transformed definition of “security” issues expounded by Professor Moos, coupled with renewed interest in interventions to shape local developments in line with external interests, couples those changes in the position of academic institutions to pressures that were less marked for a short while as the “spectre of communist revolution” diminished. Add that to what is going on politically within countries such as Britain and the United States today in the wake of domestic terrorist attacks, and the sensitivity of the conversations on which we are embarking are rather apparent. Many anthropologists and people with anthropology training working for NGOs and government sponsored agencies in places and situations deemed relevant to security concerns are now likely to experience new levels of state intrusion on their working lives and ethics. Sometimes, they will face serious risks as individuals if they chose to follow the path of conscience rather than acquiescence to these demands and restraints. In confronting these dilemmas collectively, what we have going for us is ethnographic knowledge of concrete cases coupled with that important sense of perspective that the comparative and universalizing horizons of anthropology evoke. The best way to respond to Professor Moos is, I suggest, to use our knowledge and experience to show that there are other, and much better, ways to foster the production of knowledge that can contribute to promoting peace and security on a planetary scale.

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To read, hear or watch an interview about PRISP with David Price and FelixMoos by Amy Goodman, click here