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Use of social scientists in war criticized

Study questions ethics, effects of Pentagon strategy

By Richard Lardner
Associated Press / December 4, 2009

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WASHINGTON - A Pentagon program that embeds social scientists with US combat units in Afghanistan and Iraq is a poorly defined effort that operates on shaky ethical ground, a new study on the two-year-old initiative says.

The Human Terrain System is intended to give US commanders a better understanding of the complex cultural landscapes around them so they can avoid blunders that can spark violence and hamper counterinsurgency campaigns.

But the 75-page report by the American Anthropological Association says the program is beset with “potentially irreconcilable goals’’ and is too closely aligned with military intelligence gathering.

Chief among the group’s concerns is that the research gathered by the so-called human terrain teams might be used to kill or capture Afghans or Iraqis. The report, however, cites no evidence this is happening.

“We are not confident that all [human terrain] research teams can insure ‘no harm’ to those with whom they work, particularly since [the teams] are not able to maintain reliable control over data once collected,’’ says the group’s study, which was released yesterday.

There are risks to team members as well, the study group says: In the past two years, three have been killed, “a stark reminder that battle zones are first and foremost battle zones and not research spaces,’’ the study group says.

The unanswered questions about the program’s aims should come as warnings to social science organizations and federal agencies that expect their members and employees to follow ethical standards for the treatment of human subjects, the report says.

Greg Mueller, a spokesman for the Human Terrain System office at Fort Monroe, Va., had no comment. But information provided by the office in April to the report’s authors is included as an appendix. The response says no human terrain personnel “have or are currently engaged in identification of specific individuals for lethal targeting.’’

The response adds that the identities of Afghans and Iraqis who provide information to the teams are carefully protected so insurgent groups don’t retaliate against them.

The program complies with ethical guidelines used by professional organizations, including the American Anthropological Association, according to the office.

But Robert Albro, one of the study’s authors and an assistant professor of international communication at American University, said it is not clear when those standards will be complete or what they will be.

“There’s a significant lack of public transparency about that process,’’ Albro said. “And there’s no reason not to be transparent about that.’’

There are 27 human terrain teams; 21 are in Iraq and six are in Afghanistan, according to the April comments from the Human Terrain System office.

The association’s report says managers of the project have been adamant that it is not an intelligence-gathering program. And the report acknowledges there is no known system for feeding data from the terrain teams to intelligence agencies.

But confusion over the program’s structure and uncertainty over where the information goes means there is a significant likelihood that human terrain data will be used as part of military intelligence, the report says.

There are plenty of ways social scientists can work with the military, the study says, and the authors worry that the human terrain effort will sidetrack those opportunities.

“This program is not a good face for what the relationship should be,’’ Albro said.