Issues & News

AAA Responds to Newsweek article on HTS

Newsweek magazine covered issues surrounding the U.S. military’s Human Terrain System (HTS) in its April 21st issue with an article profiling several social scientists employed (or previously employed) as part of the Pentagon’s $40 million program. The AAA responded to the article with the following letter (see below) to offer additional context to the piece and foster greater awareness about the association's extensive exploration of the issues surrounding anthropologists who do basic and applied research, act as consultants, fieldworkers and faculty members for organizations in the military, intelligence and national-security sectors.

A special AAA commission, the Ad Hoc Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with U.S. Security and Intelligence Communities, was charged in 2005 to investigate relationships between anthropologists and military, intelligence and security organizations. The Commission issued a final report in November 2007 outlining the types of work performed by anthropologists in these sectors—and the perils and opportunities of such engagement.

As the issues explored in the Commission report continue to remain a pressing concern among anthropologists and other communities, the Commission has been reconstituted for an additional two years. The Commission will continue to promote productive discussions on the relationship between anthropologists and security and intelligence agencies and hopes to reach out to other relevant organizations who face similar issues. 

The AAA response to the Newsweek article, "A Gun in One Hand, A Pen in the Other," is as follows:

251 W. 57th St.
New York, NY 10019

Attn: Letters to the Editor

Dear Editor:

I write to you on behalf of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) in response to the article, “A Gun in One Hand, A Pen in the Other,” authored by Mr. Dan Ephron and Ms. Silvia Spring. Founded in 1902 and headquartered in the nation’s capital, the AAA is the world’s largest organization of anthropologists, with over 11,000 members.

AAA believes that while the article accurately reports the position of its Executive Board regarding the potential ethical implications anthropologists participating in the U.S Military’s Human Terrain Systems program (HTS) may encounter, it is critical to convey to Newsweek and its audience that the association continues to take a proactive approach to examine the full spectrum of issues associated therein, as the intersection of the professional ethics of the association vis-à-vis the work of practicing anthropologists in the military raises broader and fundamental considerations of the limits and possibilities for social scientific practice than that represented by HTS-type scenarios.”.

On October 31, 2007, the AAA Executive Board issued a statement regarding the U.S. Military Human Terrain System program which stated, in part, that:

In the context of a war that is widely recognized as a denial of human rights and based on faulty intelligence and undemocratic principles, the Executive Board sees the HTS project as a problematic application of anthropological expertise, most specifically on ethical grounds. 

However, as the Executive Board issued this statement, a special AAA workgroup entitled the Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security and Intelligence Communities had already been working for a year on a report examining in detail the bigger picture of the varied roles that practitioners and scholars of anthropology are currently invited to assume within military, intelligence and national security entities, including the state of AAA’s existing guidelines and guidance on the involvement of anthropologists in intelligence/national security-related activities as well as the key ethical, methodological, and disciplinary challenges faced by the AAA in its current and future engagements with these communities. This report was released in late November of 2007, and in its examination of ethical considerations for anthropologists, concluded:

The Commission recognizes both opportunities and risk to those anthropologists choosing to engage with the work of the military, security and intelligence arenas. We do not recommend non-engagement, but instead emphasize differences in kinds of engagement and accompanying ethical considerations.

This Commission is continuing to examine different kinds of engagements and plans to provide further clarification in the coming months that seeks to address a continuum of concerns related to the military application of anthropology including so-called “situational ethics,” secrecy and disclosure, free and informed consent, the injunction to “do no harm,” dissemination of research results and proprietary data, institutional arrangements and types of employment.

This will include further in depth vetting of the HTS program, from the point of view of our discipline’s priorities and ethics. However, since a more thorough and balanced assessment of the intersection amongst anthropology, ethics and the military has not yet been forthcoming, it is inappropriate to assess the program in a global sense, measure its full impact, or treat it as representative of this bigger picture. Once available, this information will be available to the public on our website, located at

I would also like to bring to the attention of your readership that while the authors of the story seem to suggest that the HTS program is primarily made up of anthropologists, the program, in fact, employs many individuals from the social science community; anthropologists represent a small percentage of the total of those employed. Moreover, ethical considerations associated with the program definitely apply to the entire social science community at large, and these issues will have to be examined on an ongoing basis for years to come.



Setha Low


American Anthropological Association

2200 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 600

Arlington, VA 22201