A response to the recent Newsweek article on Human Terrain System.

As a long-standing professional rule, I do not comment on or talk about my direct professional work here on Ethnography.com. Clients get a bit touchy about the sort of thing. Long-time readers will note that since joining the Human Terrain System project that I no longer write about it. I can (as can any one in the HTS) blog about my work as much as I care to if I wish. But as most of my professional life as been under Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) in the corporate world, not blogging about it is a habit I keep. But in light of the recent Newsweek article and Donna’s recent post, I feel its in bounds to post one of the official responses and as always, people can make up their own minds.  Please note, this letter to the editor was found at the Wired Danger Room Blog, and attributed to the Newsweek letters to the editors.

Dear Editors,

Having long been an admirer of Newsweek, I found your failure to fact check the story by Dan Ephron & Silvia Springs entitled “A gun in one hand, a pen in the other” (21 April issue) completely shocking. One naturally expects more from Newsweek than such sloppy journalism.

Below you will find a list of factual corrections and some more general points about the article.


1) “the idea is to recruit academics whose area expertise and language skills” – Incorrect. In fact, the goal of HTS is to recruit social scientists with the appropriate research skills and methodological approaches. There are very, very few social scientists in the US who have the requisite knowledge of Iraq or Afghanistan, since these countries have been closed to research for many decades. However, if the social scientist on a team is not an Arabic speaker, other members of the team possess the requisite area expertise and language skills.

2) “only three speak Arabic” – Incorrect. Each team in Iraq and Afghanistan has members who speak the local language, although this person is not necessarily the social scientist. As of 14 April, there are 38 HTS personnel in Iraq distributed among 5 teams (slightly higher than normal, since we are in transition and executing some individual Reliefs in Place). 8 of those personnel are Social Scientists. 13 of those personnel speak Arabic,of which 2 are Social Scientists and 11 are Human Terrain Analysts or Research Managers.

3) “Johnson served in Afghanistan on a pilot Human Terrain team last year” – Incorrect. Tom Johnson was never a team member, but merely visited theater for two weeks.

4) Tom Johnson is a “Pashto speaker”, and “spent much of his time there interviewing Afghans in their homes” – Incorrect. According to Tom Johnson, he has no idea where this information came from — “surely not me.”

5) “Omar Altalib was one of only two Iraqi-Americans in the program” – Incorrect. Actually the program currently has about 20 Iraqi Americans.

6) Social scientists earn “$300,000” a year – Overstated. This is true only if hazard pay, overtime, and danger pay are included. The base salary is a low six figures.

7) “Steve Fondacaro………..a retired Special Forces colonel..” – Incorrect. COL Fondacaro (ret’d) has never been in Army Special Forces. His experience as Special Operations Force (SOF) officer was exclusively with 75th Ranger Regiment and higher Headquarters.

8 ) “Fondacaro says overseers had to rush through the start-up phase because Pentagon planners wanted the terrain teams in Iraq quickly” – Incorrect. The requirement to put teams in country was in response to the Joint Urgent Operational Needs Statement (JUONS) that came from the units in the war zone. Pentagon planners actually slowed the process down to carefully analyze and validate the need.

9) the contract “was handed to British Aerospace Engineering (BAE) without a bidding process” – Overstated. BAE is the omnibus contractor for TRADOC and for a start-up program, this was a normal process. Once HTS becomes a program of record, the contract will be bid out.

10) “The rest are social scientists or former GIs” – Incorrect. Actually, much of the manpower is made up of US Army reserves.

11) “the anthropologists sent to Iraq…” – Incorrect. Not all of the social scientists on teams are anthropologists.

12) “the relationship between civilian academics and military or ex-military team members was sometimes strained” – Incorrect. The environment in the training program is very different than a year ago, which is the period the quoted sources were familiar with.

13) “40-year-old expert on trash” – Incorrect. Actually, Dr. Griffin is an anthropologist with an interest in food security and economics.


1) The main input to the article came from two individuals who were terminated, and whose knowledge is outdated.

2) The article’s main premise is that the majority of HTS social scientists are not Middle East specialists with fluency in Arabic. Fair enough, but Human Terrain Teams include personnel with language, regional, and local area knowledge in addition to social scientists. The teams are not just the lone social science advisor that the media has tended to focus upon. As teams, they include a variety of individuals uniquely suited to understanding the social, political, economic and cultural aspects of the population in question — both military and civilian.

3) In the article, the significance of research methods was downplayed in favor of language and culture area skills. Certain subfields require formal area studies training, but as whole, social scientists are trained to apply their knowledge of analytical frameworks and research methodologies across different locales, based on the premise that the dynamics of human behavior exhibit certain universal features. This does not mean that social scientists cannot be area experts: many are, given their past research. However, what social scientists bring to the table is a way of looking at the social world, studying it, and analyzing it in a way that is distinct from the way the military approaches these issues.

4) That soldiers on their second- or third- tours possess inestimable knowledge about the area in which they are operating is undeniable. Yet, as currently organized, combat brigades do not possess the organic staff capability or assets to organize this knowledge and look at the broad questions that HTTs are concerned with. While civil affairs soldiers are the closest to such an organic asset, along with information operations, these assets are mission-focused and often lack the manpower to engage in the sort of question-formulation and asking that HTTs can. Nor do these assets always include personnel trained in social scientific analysis. Therefore, it is the job of HTTs to take the knowledge these soldiers have gleaned, to examine the information already being gathered on the ground on a daily basis, engage in original research, and consider this information in terms of broader issues from a different perspective in order to add to the brigade commander’s situational awareness of the social, economic, political, cultural and psychological factors at work in the environment.

5) All this was explained to both Dan Ephron & Silvia Spring, but none of it is reflected in the article.

GEN Wallace, the commander of TRADOC, has written a letter to the editors of Newsweek regarding this article, which I hope you will consider publishing. You may also consider this email as a ‘letter to the editor’ and publish any or all of it.

I hope in the future that Newsweek will hold itself to a higher standard of journalism.

Warm regards,

Montgomery McFate, JD PhD

6 thoughts on “A response to the recent Newsweek article on Human Terrain System.

  1. I’m looking into it. I *think* our provider did some kind of restore on the site and we lost a day or so. I noticed editing changes I made to the post itself were at a previous version as well.

    I’ll keep making inquires. In the meantime, if anyone that may on the off chance still have their comments please post them again and I will make sure they are appearing.

  2. The general tone of the Newsweek article calls into question how effective the overall design of the HTS program is. The main problem is that in generating the original HTS project proposal, too much was promised. Among the things promised were anthropologists who could speak exotic Iraqi languages and get US military security clearances, and interact with locals and the US military, etc. The type of person the military hoped to hire simply does not exist—so they are doing the next best thing, and trying to create one through a training program. From this perspective, getting a Ph.D. anthropologist with training in both cultural anthropology and archaeology does not sound like such a bad deal.

    Irrespective of the factual errors McFate points out, the basic flaws of the HTS program remain. I think that in the long run, anthropology offers people in foreign affairs and the military a lot. But what this story points out, is that there are many barriers in the cultures of the military and anthropology alike which restrict communication. Even if HTS cannot do anything to mediate between Iraqi civilians and the US military, perhaps they can find a way to make foreign policy and military practice more cognizant of cultural issues.

  3. I disagree with assertions in several places in this discussion that translators are a good substitute for learning a language well, whether in the classroom, or on the street (or both). Using a translator means that you tend to get to know the translator much better than the informant. Learning a language and conversing yourself is always preferable to relying on a translator.

    On the other hand, a good field assistant, many of whom know both languages also, is an outstanding resource to check interpretations and learn from. But again, it is no substitute for the drudgery of language learning.

  4. Thanks for re-posting your comments, Tony–we have a good conversation going, and I hated to see it disappear.

    Plus, I agree with everything you’ve said, so I’m glad I don’t have to say it, now.

  5. You write, “Thomas Johnson, an Afghan expert at the Naval Postgraduate School “.

    Don’t you expect that an Afghan expert is required to have lived in Afghans for atleast a year, have fluency in one of the native languages (Dari or Pashtu), and have completed graduate courses related to Afghanistan or have written his master’s thesis on Afghanistan.

    Mr. Johnson has never lived in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Occassional trips to Afghanistan or Pakistan to interview people don’t suffix.

    Mr. Johnson has never spoken a word of Dari or Pashto. Language is the gatekeeper to understand culture or a people.

    Mr. Johnson never lists where he got his master’s degree from. When you check the Naval Postgraduate School website you notice that crucial piece of information missing. He also does not correct people who assume he must have a prestigious PH.D. during meetings, conferences, seminars or when considering him for publications in peer reviewed journals. By faking this Ph.D. perception he passes himself off as a doctorate trained expert on Afghanistan.

    By very cautious of the sophmoric expert who does not have training, education, language abilities, faking his credentials.

    The expert is usually a profound philosopher distinguished for wisdom and sound judgment, but Mr. Johnson does only quote Kipling literature when discussing Afghanistan and Pakistan. Kipling, the guy who wrote “The White Man’s Burden”.

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