Working for PRISP

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.

27 thoughts on “Working for PRISP

  1. That last paragraph is actually pretty creepy. Not that I have to worry about this kind of stuff (I think) being in Canada and all that but, still, it’s creepy to think of being spied on in the classroom, which is in a sense what you’re getting at, isn’t it?

  2. I think you (and even more so people at the links you provided) are 1) misinterpreting this program, and 2) not making any sense about the larger question of anthropological involvement with the government.

    Before you read this, I gotta warn you, I’m kind of pissed.

    Ok, I’ve finished writing, and I’m editting here to clarify something. This rant started out about the above post, but as I editted, it turned into a rant about the links provided in the above post. So its no longer really addressed at oneman. But I’m tired, and going to bed, so I’m not going to edit it to make that more clear. I’ll rely on people’s reading skills.


    They’re not there to spy on *you.* Nor are they there to glean information to pass it on to the CIA. If the CIA wanted info, they’d LOOK IT UP IN A LIBRARY. And if you’re worried they’ll spy on your lectures, well, maybe you shouldn’t be giving those precious lectures to rooms full of students who can obtain entry by no more effort than paying a tuition fee. Kinda public already there. And I know, anthropologists always say they’re screwing the man by hiding data, but I doubt you guys really hide all that much, or that if you do, you give it out in class. So, this program is about getting people with anthro backgrounds into jobs at the CIA. NOT about spying on anthro professors. They will be there to… this may come as a shock… LEARN ANTHROPOLOGY. In theory, this is what all of your students do.

    Which gets me to my second point.

    Quit saying that the CIA lacks anthropologists, or that close ties don’t exist between anthropologists and the government, or any other permutation of this argument.

    This argument only works if you use a poor definition of “anthropologist” as an academic sort working in a liberal arts university who publishes papers and shows up at the same parties as you do. That the CIA employs few of these is perhaps unsurprising. But, if you define “anthropologist” as “thems that studies cultures,” I think you get a different conclusion. If someone goes out into the private sector and does public opinion polling about political issues, we’d call them a political scientist. Someone who studies sociological issues is a sociologist, even if they never set foot on a campus. Anthropology works the same way. Its not a guild. If someone is doing the act of anthropology as a job, they’re an anthropologist. It doesn’t matter if they’re not doing it from a position of academic objectivity, that just means they’re not *academics.* Not all anthropologists are academics anymore than all political scientists are academics.

    Now, how GOOD are they? Apparently, not good enough. Or the CIA is training them on their own, and they don’t want to. So, they’ve decided that it would be a good idea for future hires to attend PUBLIC INSTITUTIONS and take classes that are AVAILABLE TO ANYONE WHO PAYS.

    And the objections that the professors won’t know which students are which. WHO CARES. Honestly. If you’re a professor who thinks you have a right to know what ends your students will be putting their training, you have no business teaching at a publically accessible institution.

    I just wrote a long paragraph here, then deleted it because it was more out of anger than anything else. The short version- I find it genuinely insulting that professors feel the need to know their students future careers. I don’t know what ends those who keep mentioning this intend to put that knowledge towards, if they get it. But the idea that they think they have the right enrages me.

    The questions and commentary in some of the links just enrages me more. “Yeah, but what about Abu Ghraib???” Yeah, what about it? “Your opinion disagrees with BOAS!!!” Screw him. “The AAA ethics code disagrees with you!” The PRISP scholars don’t have to join the AAA, nor is it clear its norms should bind them, as a bunch of nonacademics. “Are you now, or have you ever been, on the CIA’s payroll?” Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the communist party? “What stops these students from reporting on their professors?” What stops any student from reporting on their professors? “Its wrong that I won’t know which students work for the CIA!” Its wrong that I don’t know YOUR political affiliations, fair is fair and I know spies. “Other countries won’t trust anthropologists anymore.” Probably outweighed by the potential to fix our complete inability to relate intelligently to the arab world, sorry guys. “But what about informed consent?” Again, not sure why this should bind nonacademics who do not agree to it; it also doesn’t bind sociologists, psychologists, or political scientists, but I guess their fields are not the military dynamite that is anthro. “But working for the goverment is so messy and morally perilous, because I do not approve of 100% of the governments actions!” That’s nice, we didn’t try to hire YOU.

    In closing, I would like to suggest that it is a very good thing that our intelligence community not be able to study the middle east under an anthropological rubric.

    They should continue to refer to middle easterners as “fucking towel heads.”

    Clearly this will lead to good things.

    Thank you.

  3. Patrick,

    I’m not worried about my students spying on me. Frankly, in today’s Horowitzian atmosphere, I pretty much assume that some are. And big deal — I’m a teacher, first and foremost when I’m in a classroom — I know how to differentiate from my personal political goals and the material my students need to master, and I know how to differentiate them well enough that my students know the difference.

    However, I do not now and would like never to work for the military or intelligence sector. It’s a decision I made, for personal and political reasons. PRISP — as any intelligence or military funding of students who are “predestined” to military/intelligence employment — makes me an employee of the CIA, by proxy. Now, it’s true, ROTC and other programs do the same thing. I don’t work on a school with ROTC, though I do get a lot of GI BIll students, and even some active military. And I don’t necessarily have an answer to why I feel PRISP is different, but I do — it seems somehow more cynical to me, and it does rub up against *my* commitment to a Code of Ethics that forbids secret research.

    After all, I am not in the classroom to create people who conform to the AAA code of ethics, but *I* have a code to live up to, which I think is shared by a lot of other anthros. What makes us uneasy is, I think, that we may be asked to train students who will break that code of ethics for us — that is, “*I* wouldn’t do it, so I’ll train someone else to do it.” I think we generally try to teach our disciplines within the moral codes that we feel are appropriate to our field.

    That said, of course, many anthros simply don’t want their students to be involved with the CIA and other intelligence organizations. I think we feel that the lessons of anthropological training should dissuade someone from involvement in agencies who have generally done more harm to the people we study than good. With PRISP, that’s not an option for our students, though the requirement they have to live up to should they find themselves “radicalized” in our classrooms is not that heavy.

    But the bottom line is, the CIA is asking — nay, telling — us to train up a generation of intelligence agents. Yes, they are within their rights — after all, it’s The Law. That doesn’t mean that we have to feel comfortable with it.

  4. Its not like they are forcing you to give special “For The CIA” classes. They are just taking ordinary courses that, as Patrick said, anyone can take. You can’t police what students do after they leave the course/university I think, both practically and (imo) ethically. It seems unlikely (though perhaps correct me) that your “wish” would be these would-be CIA students did not have the money and therefore failed to obtain any education whatsoever. Whats the prototypical “problem” students then, if its not the students who already have their mind made up and its not the poor students who need the CIA to fund their education? The student who has been corrupted by evil CIA influences and just needs their saintly Anthro prof to provide the path to salvation? Anthropological missionizing? 😛

  5. You can choose what you want to do with your training and knowledge. You cannot circumscribe what your students will choose to do. The mere desire to do so–the belief that everything your students someday do with your training makes you complicit in what they do, responsible for it, is paternalistic, even authoritarian. If a student writes a bad historical novel someday based on some things he learned from me, am I now a bad novelist? I do not like bad novels. I have a moral code against bad novel-writing, even. Must I now announce that no aspiring historical novelists who lack creative skills will be permitted in my courses?

    If you teach about anthropology, both its method and its disciplinary history, in a way that you consider to be appropriately moral, you’ve done your job. If you have students who plan to use what they’ve learned from you in ways that you consider immoral, that suggests one of several possibilities.

    First, that your perceptions of the moral character of ethnographic method and anthropological knowledge are mistaken: that anthropological knowing is a wider, bigger, messier thing than you think. Frankly, I think there’s something to that: the AAA’s strictures (or your own earlier arguments about what you regard as minimal necessary moral commitments for anthropology) are at times overly restrictive or dowdy. Journalists have a fieldwork practice, too, and I think at times they provision better ethnographic results of some kinds than formal anthropology does. For that matter, there are actual, practicing, paid members of the AAA who’ve done work that is by your standards “secret”.

    Second, maybe your presentation of the moral commitments of anthropology is unconvincing in your courses. If it’s presented as code and writ rather than persuasive and arguable, that could be part of it. I’m firmly of the belief that you can’t teach people ethics unless you argue for ethics, and to argue for them involves putting the ethics you defend in harm’s way, you have to be willing to put those ideas up for questioning, risk the contingent peril that they will be legitimately challenged. Suppose a PRISP student made some of Patrick’s objections in class, and you responded with, “That’s all fine, I just don’t want you to morally contaminate me by using something I’ve taught you.” Game, set, match: you haven’t even bothered to try and persuade that student.

    Third, you could just feel completely unconcerned by falling back on the position that if you have students who will go on to try and do ethnography and you’re confident that they can’t square working for the CIA and doing ethnography at once, you could feel that they will fail because the two things cannot be reconciled. There’s something to that: you can at least argue that the knowledge you gain through deception and misrepresentation is never going to be meaningful anthropological knowledge.

  6. What is particularly interesting for me is the shift within the CIA. Not long ago (during the time just before the revolution in Iran), a CIA investigator who wanted to contact local people in the marketplace and do actual fieldwork had to quit the CIA to do so. The Cold War mentality meant that any CIA operative who had contact with locals was untrustworthy and a potential double-agent. As a result – most operatives in Tehran got their information via newspapers. (There was a book about this, but I forget the title. Anybody know? It was written by the agent himself.)

    Embracing fieldwork as a methodology represents a fundamental shift – but it itself is still quite different from the Chinese method. The Chinese rely much less on individual operatives and secret knowledge, but instead use data mining to go through vast amounts of publicly available documents. I believe the CIA is starting to do this as well.

    Finally, I think there is another way to make this argument: That the learning process itself requires frank and open discussion. Patrick is rightly concerned about authoritarian dictates upon students goals – but students being required to keep their own allegiances secret seems to me to go counter to the very learning process.

  7. Finally, I think there is another way to make this argument: That the learning process itself requires frank and open discussion. Patrick is rightly concerned about authoritarian dictates upon students goals – but students being required to keep their own allegiances secret seems to me to go counter to the very learning process.

    The link says students aren’t required to keep their involvement with the program secret though:

    AMY GOODMAN: David Price, the issue of secrecy, and we only have a few seconds to go, but the fact that the professors don’t even know if their students are on the C.I.A. payroll?

    FELIX MOOS: That’s not true. That’s not true. The Pat Roberts scholarship program does not force individuals to any secrecy. If the critics of the Pat Roberts program would contact Senator Roberts’ office for information —

    DAVID PRICE: The interesting thing is, of course, there’s secrecy. Not a single participant in this program has come forward.

  8. I don’t ask my students about all the things they carry with them into my classes and all the purposes to which they may put what I teach. I don’t expect them to disclose anything they don’t want to disclose. A student who is learning ethnography with the expectation of working for the CIA isn’t substantively any different than a non-American student who is studying history in my class with the intent of sharpening his plans to return to his homeland and entering politics.

    There’s a separate issue here about whether the CIA taking an interest in ethnographic method is a good or bad thing, which goes back to Oneman’s previous post on Montgomery McFate: here too I think Oneman’s assumptions need some rethinking. But whatever you think of this development, the aspiration to manage or forbid student uses of your teaching is a misfire from the outset.

  9. I don’t expect them to disclose anything they don’t want to disclose.

    I think that is a different question from whether someone else is pressuring them not to disclose information in the classroom. Although Pat Roberts says it isn’t secret. It seems that there are pressures to the contrary. I wouldn’t want a student in my class not to be able to talk about something freely because it could endanger their funding…

  10. I also see potential problems emerging. Suppose I ask my undergrads to do ethnographic fieldwork. I would consider it unethical for such a student to do fieldwork without disclosing their CIA affiliations to the community they are studying.

  11. Granted the pressure could be from the CIA, as you describe. However, to me, it seems at least as plausible that the student’s just don’t want to dislose this kind of information to professors. Afterall, these professors have proclaimed that CIA funding is morally wrong. Those are the professors who control the student’s mark and ultimate success in the degree 😛 At least, that is how an undergaduate sees it.

    Also, you have undergraduates who do fieldwork? This topic I find kind of interseting. What kind of fieldwork could they be doing? And what set of affiliations do you think these undergraduates should be required to disclose under that circumstance? Do you think thats an interpretation of “support for research projects”? Because this seems to imply that all these undergraduate students must be completely open about where their tuition money comes from. That doesn’t currently seem to be the case…

  12. Are you sure the pressures to the contrary aren’t being applied by the anthropologists? Look at the Chronicle Q&A. Any student, fully informed about the general views of the anthropological community, who decided to tell the anthropological community members responsible for his or her grades that he/she was contracted to go work for the CIA, is, ipso facto, a damned idiot.

  13. maniaku: Sure, undregrads do fieldwork all the time. For instance, one class I knew of last semester (not mine) had students doing research among the Indonesian immigrant population in Philadelphia – for a class on human rights. Now I can easily imagine a situation where the population in question was itself directly involved with CIA activity in some way. (Some Hmong immigrants in Philly actually worked for the CIA themselves – during the Vietnam war.) While all of a student’s funding sources wouldn’t normally need to be disclosed – if something like this came out after the fact it could create serious problems for the relationship between the university and the community.

  14. I find the discussion in this thread very disturbing. The shock people seem to be having that anthropologists should be unhappy about becoming outsourced CIA labour (don’t question it, you “authoritarian”) seems nothing short of bizarre.
    I have fundamental disagreements with this program. Anthropology as a whole is a difficult and dangerous enough discipline as it is, and accusations of spying are prevailent in the field. Now, they’d actually have more basis in fact. I think this is dangerous for anthropologists in general, regardless of the parochial national benefits Patrick thinks it would provide, and Timothy Burke’s inability to see any difference between the production of a CIA agent and a bad historical novelist.
    Second, anthropology is disinterested scholarship. I consider that we study anthropology because it happens to interest us. I don’t agree that there are any morals attached to it, but I have no idea what is attached to (in practice, secretly) CIA-funded anthropology.
    Fundamentally, then, I think this is destructive to anthropology as independent inquiry

  15. Just to clarify, 2nd sentence third paragraph should be taken to imply that we do anthropology because it happens to be the sort of scholarship we are interested in.

  16. You can certainly question the program itself, and there are indeed potentially dangerous consequences for anthropologists doing research. Though I’d note the conflation in the field of spying and ethnography is old and in certain ways pretty well founded. In the contexts that many anthropologists and ethnographers work, I’m not sure their subjects would care much about the distinction. In the rural town in northeastern Zimbabwe that I did some work in, I don’t think the people I talked to would understand or care much about the difference between a CIA agent and a Ph.D student. In fact (and this is very common) most understood me as having some connection to development agencies and/or the Zimbabwean state, regardless of how I explained myself and my purposes, because those are the only two institutional entities that routinely concern themselves with the production of knowledge about rural communities in places like Zimbabwe. (That was 1990; today I don’t think I’d be seen as a representative of the Zimbabwean state.) There are places where that difference would matter enormously, of course–the contemporary Middle East, for example. But anyone there who is anxious about the possibility that the CIA might be interested in their activities would be a fool to assume that any American anthropologist, however well-meaning or detailed in their profession of ethnographic ethics, is not a CIA agent. Not merely because they might be, but because an anthropologist publishes in the public domain their research: what they know is, by the very ethics Oneman is describing, necessarily to become known to others. This is kind of what’s working in the hoary old joke about the anthropologist who returns to his fieldsite a decade after publishing a monograph on it, consults the local elders and asks nervously if they read the book, to which the elders reply, “Oh, my yes, and it was very good. If we’d known you would write such a good book, we would have told you the truth the first time you were here.” The intrusion of the CIA into fieldwork only accentuates or shifts slightly the uneven playing field that ethnography necessarily involves; in a few places, more dramatically so because of the current state of geopolitics.

    That’s all one concern, and it’s what Oneman was talking about in responding to Montgomery McFate. This is different. There’s an ethic to pedagogy too: you cannot dictate what others will do with the knowledge you offer. You can only offer it with the ethics you value embedded within it, and hope that the ethics are integral enough to what you know that the two cannot be separated. Pedagogy in this respect parallels publication: in both cases you make choices about what to say and not say, put into the public or hold to yourself, argue and concede. Once you’ve made those choices, trying to micromanage the uses to which others put what you’ve said or done after they’re beyond your presence is an authoritarian aspiration. In a course, if you want, you can come back at someone who seems to you to misunderstand or misuse what you’re offering to the class. After the course–or as a preemptive strike–you’ve got no say in practical terms, and in ethical terms, you shouldn’t even aspire to. That’s the meaning of “public”, and it’s the meaning of teaching as well.

  17. To reiterate, ‘don’t question it, you “authoritarian”‘ was a comment about the misdirection of accusations of authoritarianism (as I see it) in this argument. In my opinion, describing any Bourdieuian patron-client paternalism on the part of academics as authoritarian in a discussion of a program where CIA-funded students are micromanaged through an educational program to a specific outcome is a problematic way of framing the discussion. This isn’t a scholarship where the “take the money and run” argument of scholarly independence can be made, this is indentured scholarship where university-based learning plays only a part. We do not know what comes attached to this, yet we are aware that it has potentially dangerous consquences for the profession. This is, in my opinion, destructive free-riding on disinterested scholarship.

  18. There are a lot of scholarships that come with conditionalities. Many developing nations have programs for funding educational training for citizens that require the recipients to return home and work in their home nation for a fixed duration. Athletic scholarships sometimes constrain their recipients. Businesses sometimes pay for retraining or continuing education on the condition that the employee receiving the assistance continue working for the company for a contractually specified amount of time. Are you against all such “indenture” of education?

  19. I didn’t make an argument about all indentured scholarship, I think that’s clear from the last two sentences of my previous post.

  20. Actually, you did. You perhaps did not mean to, but there is nothing in your last two sentences that differentiates the PRISP program from other programs in terms of authoritarianism.

    The “outsourced CIA labor” argument is just plain weird. It applies equally to the CIA as well as to every other employer on the globe. I took classes in anthropology; lets say that after I graduate I go work for the republican party (unlikely). Does that make my poor anthropology professor into outsourced labor for the republicans? What if I agreed to work for them prior to taking his class? I will be applying for jobs shortly. With luck, I will get hired prior to the beginning of the second semester. Does that make all of my professors during that semester into outsourced labor for whomever hires me?

  21. No I didn’t, and the point was about the destructive nature of the program to anthropology in practice, rather than to the argument regarding authoritarianism, which was a critique of the way in which those who had not criticised the program had framed their argument.
    Regarding the problematic nature of the program: you’d have to presuppose I consider all indentured scholarship to have a destructive influence on the profession. Which would be odd, and uncharitable.
    I specifically set up why I think this specific program is destructive in earlier posts, and I specifically pointed out that I don’t think equivalence can be drawn between the production of a CIA agent and a bad historical novelist. Though presumably if pulpy publishing houses offered indentured scholarships I’d necessarily have to consider them destructive to anthropology as a profession, or something.
    I believe the outsourced labour argument is accurate. The CIA could, if it chose to, teach anthropology inhouse as part of a recruitment training scheme. In practice it has farmed it out to anthropology departments, on the basis of a micromanaged program of study that also includes a CIA internship and leads to a very specific career path. Its that basis in a micromanaged, funded and structured governmental training scheme, not that it bears some resemblance to a set of ad hoc agreements any individual student could put together (which indeed it must, though since it is in practice currently opaque to academic anthropology, only those on the program and those they report to within the CIA can know what their training actually entails), which leads to the “outsourced CIA labour” argument.

  22. (If anyone’s interested you should probably stick a “…?” onto the end of the third paragraph).

  23. Look, the key thing is, given your argument, don’t get tangled up in arguments about the indenture of scholarship, or the preservation of intellectual disinterestedness, etc. Your argument boils down to something simpler: the CIA is bad and anything that helps it is therefore bad. Which is an argument you’re entitled to make, but it’s got nothing to do with scholarships, anthropology, and so on as such. Pass Go and collect $200.00: deal with the CIA as such.

  24. This could have some positive impact on foreign policy. As Steve Sailer pointed out 2 years ago at, the war in Iraq was DOOMED from the start. (Although Tommy Franks seemed to know about the big NO-NO with regards to urban warfare, and BALED as soon as he finnihed the big push.)He accuratley predicted the outcome and WHY, according to socialogical background.He also stated (IHO) what could be done to help maximize success, (divide the country into ethnic regions, etc…)which is the only sensible alternative.

    It seems that the Neo-cons thought they were Americans, and Iraq was France, circa 1944. This misinterpretation has cost thousands of lives, and billions of dollars, and threatens world stability….

    Of course, if you LIE about why you are going to war in the first place……

    Has anyone figured out WHY we went to war in Iraq? I think I missed that…

  25. Pingback:

Comments are closed.