Human Terrain and the IRB Puzzle

Has the research conducted by anthropologists for the US Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS) been reviewed by any Institutional Review Board? The answer is apparently no.

One of the very first questions that occurred to me when I began reading about professors of anthropology being employed by HTS pertained to which regulations and laws were relevant to their research. While much heated debate concerned ethical principles, I wondered about what was actually happening in practice. We need an adequate description of the actually existing regulatory environment in which anthropologists consulting with the military operate. Moreover, this has major implications extending beyond the immediate ‘military question.’ As anthropologists follow a general academic trend toward greater collaboration across institutional lines (universities, corporations, NGOs, etc), it will be vital to have full information on how different kinds of ethical oversight regimes intersect and under what circumstances. SM has provided one forum for discussion of these issues.

In August, I wrote to Dr. Marcus Griffin, professor of anthropology at Christopher Newport University (CNU), to ask specifically whether his research had been reviewed by an IRB and whether he thought such approval was even necessary given the nature of the research. Dr. Griffin responded here in comments that he was too busy preparing for deployment to answer these questions, but that he would write about them on his blog. While he did subsequently blog about ethics, he never answered the specific question about IRB review. This prompted further inquiry on my part. My questions have had to focus on Griffin because, to my knowledge, he is the only university anthropologist publicly known to be working in the HTS program. Indeed, as I wrote to the CNU Research Board for the Protection of Human Subjects (RBPHS), “Dr. Griffin’s openness about his research/work and his responsiveness to questions raised has been exemplary, and I certainly appreciate his candidness.”

That sentence is from an email I sent to the head of the CNU RBPHS last week requesting clarification as to whether the RBPHS had vetted Griffin’s research and whether or not it felt that Griffin’s research was within its purview. CNU RBPHS has never responded to or acknowledged this inquiry nor has it responded to any of the follow-ups I have sent. However, Griffin did respond by saying that his research is under the auspices of the Department of Defense (DoD) and not CNU. Thus, Griffin wrote that his research does not require IRB approval because it does not fall under Department of Health and Humans Services regulations mandating review of research with human subjects (45 CFR 46), but rather falls under a different law pertaining to the DoD (32 CFR 219). Griffin also put me in touch with people at HTS. I subsequently received replies from Montgomery McFate and from Col. Steve Fondacaro, program manager for HTS, who was especially helpful. The more I have found out, however, the more I am puzzled. Below I summarize what I have learned, some of which clears up misconceptions that many anthropologists apparently have about the applicability of 45 CFR 46 (‘the common rule’) to research conducted with the Department of Defense.

1. Griffin, and perhaps any other university anthropologist working with DoD under HTS, understands his research to be governed not by title 45 CFR 46 (‘the common rule’) but rather by title 32 CFR 219 because his work is under the auspices of the Department of Defense and not his home university. This accords with the common idea that DoD research with human subjects is not governed by the ‘common rule.’

2. However, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, in DoD Directive 3216.2 (March 25, 2002), canceled previous DoD directives concerning research with human subjects and implemented 32 CFR 219.

3. 32 CFR 219 is identical — ostensibly word for word– to 45 CFR 46, the ‘common rule.’ Thus, Wolfowitz effectively brought DoD research under the governance of the common rule in his March 2002 directive. In the directive, 32 CFR 219 is referred to by Wolfowitz as ‘the Common Rule.’

4. Given this background, the claim that HTS research is not subject to IRB approval cannot be premised on some difference in content between 45 CFR 46 and 32 CFR 219 because they are identical.

5. Fondacaro therefore argues that HTS research is not subject to IRB oversight because of provision 32 CFR 219 sec. 101(b)(2), which states that research conducted through “the use of educational tests (cognitive, diagnostic, aptitude, achievement), survey procedures, interview procedures or observation of public behavior” is exempt.

6. Thus, the HTS is understood by the program manager to be exempt from IRB regulation within the parameters specified by the common rule. However, as I wrote in a follow up to Fondacaro, “The exemption you cite, 32 CFR 219, sec. 101(b)(2), apparently applies to HTS-type research (that is, ethnographic research) that has already been reviewed. It apparently mandates that a review board at least look at the research in order to determine whether or not continuing oversight is necessary; I don’t think this is typically understood as a determination the researcher him/herself or the research team itself makes. Further, as you know, the exemption stipulates stringent protocols regarding data recording in order to insure the anonymity of research subjects <32 CFR 219, sec. 101(b)(2)(i)>. I am therefore inclined to think the onus is on DoD to insure that those stipulations are being met through a review of the research protocol.” I am waiting to hear from Fondacaro regarding this. It is important to add that Fondacaro says that HTS program managers are waiting for “final guidance” on the matter from US Army lawyers.

7. The exemption of HTS research from IRB review argued for by Griffin & Fondacaro is stipulated on the premise that the research of people like Griffin is not governed by their own university IRB boards. This may or may not be the case. Most US universities that receive federal funding have complied with the ‘common rule’ by signing a contract or agreement with Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Human Research Protections. This agreement is usually called a ‘Multiple Project Assurance’ (MPA) or ‘Federalwide Assurance’ (FWA). According to Richard Shweder, almost all universities in the US that receive federal funding agree in their MPA or FWA to apply DHHS Belmont Report standards to all research with human subjects connected with them. This is usually the case in research environments characterized by hypervigilant IRB oversight. Indeed, it is these agreements that have made many ethnographic projects by anthropologists subject to IRB review regardless of their content or funding source.

8. What, then, is the position of any university IRB with respect to research such as this? Dr. Griffin has very concisely stated that HTS research does not fall under the oversight parameters of CNU. But to put this inquiry in context, Griffin states that he intends to publish his research, and in fact he is already doing so on his blog, a blog wherein he identifies himself in the following manner: “I am an anthropologist and professor at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia.” I am hoping someone can help clarify this question. I am waiting to hear from the CNU RBPHS.

9. In a recent BBC report, we learned that HTS is outsourced to defence contractor BAE Systems. Here is a link to the BAE job ad for HTS. Thus, the story gets even more complicated, and perhaps connects to other concerns about the rules that govern the conduct of private contractors in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

One friend of mine commenting on the above said that I had fallen into the ‘rabbit hole’ of the common rule. Or maybe it was a spider hole. In any case, this is complicated ‘terrain’ indeed. I wish to emphasize that these inquiries have been made to help contribute to disciplinary discussion about the ethics of inquiry into and engagement with the US security apparatus. As the question of social scientists working for the military continues to raise heated debate, I think it is vital that we calmly and carefully produce a complete picture of the situation rather than simply cast aspersions. I am not a fan of IRB ‘mission creep.’ Nonetheless, it would be ironic if anthropologists with NSF funding to study, say, the esoterica of Melanesian cosmologies were required to receive IRB review, but those getting DoD funding to interview (while wearing a uniform and carrying a gun) people in the midst of civil war were not.

I think I join others also in expressing my wish for the continuing safety of those working with the HTS, as well as my hope for the continuing safety of the Iraqis and Afghans who cooperate with the them.

{UPDATE 23.10.2007:  I have been traveling and away from email.  After publishing this post, I received the following response from CNU’s provost Mark Padilla:  “Christopher Newport University does not have any comment about Dr. Griffin’s military duties during his current leave of absence.”}

14 thoughts on “Human Terrain and the IRB Puzzle

  1. There was a time I believed that real scientific analysis of the situation would have produced much better recommendations than the CIA briefly meeting with Iraq exiles. But at that time, no one was interested in what a bunch of ivory tower social scientists were saying. I’m puzzled by why the decision to do this is being made now. This is obviously not a first choice solution to the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. The initial perception was clearly that military and professional managers could handle these problems. The incorporation of social scientists into the war is not a well thought out partnership. It’s a last ditch attempt to handle a war that’s grown so far out of control that conventional solutions appear useless. I share the concern of the image that will be left by this experiment. After all, it’s not uncommon to perceive journalists and aid workers as spies.

  2. Thanks, Strong, for going to the considerable effort to research this question and report on it. It grounds the discussion about the ethics of anthropologists working for the military in some useful, concrete facts.

  3. nice research. Griffin is in it for the tax free big bucks. He doesn’t give a crap about ethics and won’t take any responsibility for not considering the ethics of what he does, he’s turned those decisions over the McFate. McFate’s at war, so she can’t be bothered with ethics.

  4. BBH, I think this is unfair to Marcus Griffin. Ad hominem attacks like the one you just leveled don’t get the discipline anywhere. You just lowered the bar straight into the basement when it comes to intelligent discussion about the relationship between anthropology and the military – and ironically, you’ve done precisely the opposite of what Strong advocates.

    Like a lot of anthropologists, I’ve got plenty of questions about the HTS program. But it’s simply not productive to engage in such virulently personal attacks on people who’ve made decisions that I might not make myself. Why not give Griffin the benefit of the doubt? Maybe he’s not in it for the money. Maybe he’s really trying to do something about the violence on the ground in Iraq. It’s really easy for those of us who’ve decided that HTS is ‘wrong’ (whatever that means) to rip people like Griffin apart without ever meeting the guy or engaging in a conversation with him to really understand what is reasoning is. He’s certainly not the only person who believes that anthropologists might in some small way help minimize casualties to US and Iraqi civilians, and I doubt he’s the only anthropologist who thinks so.

    As Strong has pointed out so elegantly, “ is vital that we calmly and carefully produce a complete picture of the situation rather than simply cast aspersions.” That’s a mantra worth repeating.

  5. It is interesting that Americans are comfortable viewing high paid Blackwater contractors as having different “patriotic” motivations than army soldiers, but we can’t think this way about anthropologists contractors?


    Blackwater shooters earn $200,000 a year and these anthropologist contractors must be earning something like this too. This should be part of the discussion.

  6. Judy, I didn’t say that money shouldn’t be part of the discussion. It’s part of that complicated picture that Strong talks about.

    But we’re anthropologists, right? Reducing complex situations to single variables and motivations, and pinning those on an individual that most of us have never met, isn’t what we’re trained to do. Let’s not do it here.

    Jeff, to the jump squats and essay I’d add wind sprints and a Powerpoint presentation on Chomsky’s _Problems of Knowledge and Freedom_.

  7. Excellent post by Strong about the legal and jurisdictional issues. Who’s in charge here? DoD? BAE? AAA?

    Have been too busy doing my 150 jump squats and pedagogy of the oppressed essay to atone for previous ad hominem posts to post much here….

  8. Thanks LL and others. I have been away from the internet for a few days while traveling. I do hope to follow this inquiry a bit further and will provide further updates as things become clearer.

  9. Thanks for your helpful post. Yes, in what I have written above, I refer to what is ‘typically understood’ about exemption from IRB review. It is helpful to know more of the background of this understanding, so thank you. As I said in the post, I am trying to find out how the people involved understand the situation. I am less concerned with my own interpretations than with _theirs_.

  10. All this points to the larger problem of how ethical standards are institutionalized, which is one of those topics that we’ll continue to grapple with long after this incident is behind us.

    Honestly, the more I learn about HTS, the more confused I get about it.

    Nice work, Strong – keep on this.

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