Kerim sent me a link to a short piece on Democracy Now on the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholarship Program (PRISP; noted earlier here at SM by Kerim). PRISP is a scholarship program which funds students studying languages or area studies inexchange for service to the CIA. Anthropologist Felix Moos, whose idea PRISP was, defends the program, while David Price opposes it. Unfortunately, the segment is way too short to even begin to scratch the surface of the debate over PRISP; for a more in-depth look, check out the Chronicle’s Q&A with Moos from March and David Price’s CounterPunch article, The CIA’s Campus Spies.
You’d expect me to have an opinion on this, and I do, but I’ll spare you the political posturing. What interests me here is the impact of PRISP in terms of disciplinary history, which is, I think, Price’s (among others) underlying concern. The history of anxiety over the intersection of anthropology and the military-intelligence complex dates back at least to Boas’ 1919 letter to The Nation, “Scientists as Spies”, but it was not until the Vietnam War that concerns over secrecy, and the potential of intelligence-related work to have serious consequences for both anthropologists and their subjects, became part of the mainstream in the discipline. Since then, though, American anthropologists have generally (though in no way entirely) rejected efforts by the state to build closer ties — though, it must be noted that over the same time period, the government has rarely reached out to anthropologists, so this commitment hasn’t been oft-tested.
A question which, in the heat of the Vietnam War, had serious on-the-ground consequences (as, for example, in anthropologists’ involvement in Thailand counter-insurgency efforts) has since developed into a concern for academic autonomy from the state (even as much of that autonomy was being “captured” by corporate interests), and it is here, I think, that PRISP presents a threat. Anthropologists have largely been worried about the uses of their data and conclusions by military and intelligence agencies, where anthropologists cannot control or temper how their information is used and interpreted. When publishing, we can impose a filter of sorts — pseudonyms, composite characters, selective reporting, etc. — which is a bit different from putting one’s self and one’s knowledge into the direct emply of the state. So most anthropologists (but again, far from all) have declined to work for the government in military-intelligence capacities.
PRISP seems like an end-run around that position — if the CIA can’t get anthropologists to work for them directly, PRISP places us indirectly in the CIA’s employ, as teachers of a new wave of intelligence-oriented area and language experts. While to a degree this has always been the case — anthropology BAs have long been considered good recruits for intelligence work — PRISP makes the arrangement explicit and foreordained.
This is what makes us nervous, I think — the idea that PRISP students will be in our classrooms, without our knowledge, not to learn anthropology as a discipline, and not to learn anthropology as part of a solid liberal arts education, but to glean from us whatever data and theories might be particularly useful in the field of intelligence. Ultimately, even those of us who are critical of US intelligence work will find ourselves perpetuating it — and our critiques falling on the deaf ears of PRISP students who know what side their bread is buttered on.