Published online 18 October 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.598

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Pentagon cultural analyst helped with interrogations

'Experiment' raises alarm among social scientists.

Human TerrainThe US Army's Human Terrain System programme embeds civilian social scientists with Army units.Photo by Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images

The Pentagon's forays into social science — what the military calls "human terrain" — have raised ethics concerns among academics. But now, a cultural analyst working as a contractor for the military has said that she helped to interrogate detainees in Afghanistan.

Cultural expertise was "key in the support I was providing to the interrogator to develop a relationship with the detainee", said Julia Bowers, principal senior analyst for human terrain at SCIA, a company based in Tampa, Florida, that provides socio-cultural services for the military and intelligence community, at a conference in San Antonio, Texas, on 16 October.

"Typically human-terrain analysis is more of a human data-gathering and mapping approach," Bowers said, but in this job, her remit was more to help the interrogator to gain the detainee's trust. The programme was experimental and ran "for just a few months", she said.

Bowers worked with the US Central Command's human terrain analysis branch, which is separate from the army's Human Terrain System (HTS), a better known programme that embeds social scientists within the military. Both, however, are designed to provide the military with better cultural understanding and expertise.

The HTS, started in 2006, actively recruits from academia and now has 31 teams deployed in Afghanistan. It was initially embraced by senior Pentagon officials, including former defence secretary Robert Gates, but has been dogged by controversy after the injury and death of several social scientists.

In one of the more dramatic incidents, a team member was convicted of manslaughter for killing an Afghan detainee who had set a social scientist on fire. The social scientist later died of her wounds.

The Human Terrain Analysis Branch, by contrast, has kept a much lower profile, though it is also uses social science to collect cultural and ethnographic information for the military in Afghanistan and around the region.

Levels of advice

The American Anthropological Association in Arlington, Virginia, has a rapid response network of individuals dedicated to advising the organisation on the ethical concerns of anthropologists working with the military. The network was faced with the interrogation issue early on, says Hugh Gusterson, an anthropologist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, who is part of the network. But the issue then was whether they should advise on interrogation policy, not whether anthropologists should actually participate in interrogations.

"Advising people on how to extract information from people who don't want information extracted, that is the antithesis of what the anthropological encounter is supposed to look like," says Gusterson. "It's inherently unethical to me."

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So far, the HTS has been involved in interrogations in just one experiment. A former employee of the HTS, who asked not to be identified, says that they learned in 2009 that HTS personnel were involved at one point in interrogations in Afghanistan. "I sent it up the chain at Fort Leavenworth; they knew about it," the employee says. "It struck me as blatantly unethical. I didn't want anything to with it."

The employee, who describes the work as "the exact opposite of what the programme says it is", left the HTS shortly after voicing their concerns.

Retired Army Col. Steve Fondacaro, who headed HTS until he was ousted in a management shakeup last year notes that all the units that HTS teams support are involved in interrogations. "Our team members may have been asked to help or advise in any or all of these areas where it related to greater insight and understanding of the population," he wrote in an email. "But it did not result in any of these operation becoming core mission capabilities HTS focused upon."

But Sharon Hamilton, head of the programme, says that HTS personnel have not worked with interrogators, at least in the year-and-a-half she's been there. "We have a strict rule and the units understand this," she says. "HTS teams are never used with people who cannot provide informed consent. Informed consent obviously, by its very nature, cannot be given by a detainee." 

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