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The Ethics of Spying

Responses to F. Moos, R. Fardon and H. Gusterson (AT21[3]). Published in Anthropology Today, pp. 19-20, vol. 21, no. 4, 2005.

The Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program in the US is currently conducting a two-year pilot project which involves secretly sponsoring up to 150 trainees each year, with the aim of facilitating the recruitment of analysts with linguistic or scientific skills essential to the intelligence community. Devised by an anthropologist, the programme includes training in anthropology, and has rightfully become a topic for serious debate in the pages of ANTHROPOLOGY TODAY. The use of anthropology in counter-insurgency and, more generally, the ethics of anthropology, were extensively discussed in the 1960s and 1970s, culminating in the formulation of ethical codes by professional anthropology associations worldwide. It is important that we remain aware of these discussions and these codes.

Historical examples of covert research, and the fieldwork they are based on, are instructive. One case in Dutch colonial history is that of the famous scholar Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje. Following detailed fieldwork resulting in a magnificent monograph on the people of Aceh, this student of Arab culture and anthropologist avant la lettre was invited to advise the governor-general of the Netherlands Indies about the war in northern Sumatra. In his view the only way to win this late 19th-century conflict was to withdraw from negotiations with the local headmen and wage active guerilla war against the religious leaders, who had formed hostile bands supported by some sectors of the population. Aceh could only be pacified once these bands were completely eradicated and had lost the support of the people. Snouck further advised that the confidence of the population should be regained by fostering the development of agriculture, trade and handicrafts. His advice was eventually followed by van Heutz, the commander of Aceh, and some years later the area had been ‘pacified’ – the term for subjugation in those days.

Wertheim (1972) has pointed out Snouck’s ambiguous position. He had very friendly relations with his informants, condemned the arrogant behaviour of the Dutch authorities and was keen to promote the welfare of the people. He also thought that repression was in the interest of the Acehnese, who were described as unreliable and treacherous. In the course of action he recommended, subjugation and development were intertwined, as was congruent with the colonial values of his time. During fieldwork the aims of his research were not revealed to the informants.

Nowadays such norms and values are no longer appropriate, as it is generally acknowledged that peoples have the right to self-determination. According to Wertheim, the expression of solidarity with the wretched of the earth is also an important element in our ethics. Furthermore, we now believe that informants have the right to know the aims and results of our research.

Since values change over time it is of course difficult to formulate absolute criteria for good and bad behaviour. From this and many other early counter-insurgency accounts, such as the anti-Mau Mau advice given by Carothers and Leakey in the 1950s,1 and the US Defense Department’s infamous aborted Camelot project on rebellions and revolutions in a number of Latin American countries of the 1960s,2 we learn that the results of anthropological research may be used or abused to a variety of ends.

The problem is that there are no overall ethical rules which encompass the values considered acceptable to all relevant parties the world over. Anthropological research and teaching have relevance for actors in a wide range of networks – the scientific community, informants, individual scientists, students, governments, university officials, managers and employers – all with their own particular values and often diverging interests. In many countries professional anthropology associations have developed ethical codes to incorporate lessons learnt from the Vietnam War. Sociologists have been supporting armies for a long time, and we owe the famous reference group theory about the varying attitudes of different groups of soldiers during war to this type of research.

Our ethical codes emphasize values such as the protection of the privacy and interests of informants, the right of informants to know their role in the investigation and to be acquainted with its aims, the obligation to abide by the scientific community’s standards governing adequacy of research, honesty, general availability of the results and so on. These codes are often based on situational ethics and, when the values they are based on come into conflict, scholars are often left to make the best of a bad situation. For example, the code of the Dutch Anthropological and Sociological Association states:

This code starts from the premise that in social research a range of values and interests is at stake, none of which have absolute priority, and which furthermore may conflict with one another. There is both a desire for more openness and a need for greater privacy, two principles that may easily come into conflict. Depending on the situation, the investigator must make a choice, after weighing all factors involved. Generally, this means making the best of a bad situation (NSAV 1975: 2).

No discussion of past counter-insurgency research and present-day anthropological ethical codes can culminate in a blanket condemnation of the training of spies in anthropology departments. Much will depend on diverging political views and local circumstances. If only for this reason, Moos’ call for anthropologists around the world to get involved in spying is problematic. Furthermore, any funding programme should be accepted only on the condition that it observes the codes developed by the anthropological scientific community for adequate research and teaching and for any situations where anthropology is applied. In addition, it needs to be demonstrated to the scientific community that the security situation is so pressing as to justify training spies by this method, and that normal recruitment of spies following regular academic study is impossible. Any covert planting of spies would need to be subject to the scientific community’s acceptance, on the basis of convincing arguments.

I have both practical and procedural objections to the PRISP proposal. Anthropologists could become excellent spies after completing their studies, as do students of foreign languages and scholars in any other discipline. However, if spies are clandestinely planted for anthropological training and research, with the aim of covert collection of information about people and places, they will most certainly violate our professional ethical codes and bring the anthropological scientific community into disrepute. This will result in serious mistrust of anthropological fieldwork, may personally endanger anthropologists working in the field and will generally hamper development of the profession.

The correct procedure would be first to prove that the political situation is so urgent that covert operation is justified, then that the education of spies cannot be done in a better and less compromising way, then to seek support from the ethics committees of the relevant national and international professional anthropology associations, and subsequently for these activities to be monitored by a mutually trusted third party. This procedure is necessary to guarantee the proper evaluation and organization by the scholarly community of the values and activities involved.

By using anthropological training and field research as a cover for spying activity or for training spies, security authorities discredit both our discipline and their own profession. An exposed spy is a dead spy, and like Project Camelot, an exposed spy-funding programme is doomed from the start. The values of openness and honesty ultimately trump those of deception.

Peter J.M. Nas
Leiden University, The Netherlands
(Secretary-General, IUAES)3
nas[at]fsw.leidenuniv.nl



1. See Buijtenhuis 1972.

2. See Horowitz 1967, Galtung 1967.

3. This contribution contains a personal and provisional view. As Secretary-General of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, I propose that the relevant bodies in this organization discuss this ethical question, so that the Union can formulate a formal statement, as it previously did on the concept of race (see the IUEAS website at www.leidenuniv.nl/fsw/iuaes).


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