FOIA Document: 1980 CIA Recruitment Pitch Claims No Ethical Issues for CIA Anthropologists

FOIA Document: 1980 CIA Recruitment Pitch Claims No Ethical Issues for CIA Anthropologists

While working through document collections in dozens of university and governmental archives, online FOIA document repositories, and through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, I have amassed a collection of letters from anthropologists and other scholars corresponding with the CIA. Sometimes scholars write asking for reports, maps, or other documents they hope can be released into the public domain, in other instances anthropologists write sharing information relating to their work or that of colleagues, or they write inquiring about employment possibilities. One example of this is this linked correspondence, in which CIA’s Director of Central Intelligence, Stansfield Turner, responds to correspondence and clippings sent along from anthropologist Felix Moos—a long time anthropologist-CIA interlocutor, and future architect of the post-9/11 PRISP initiative, connecting anthropologists and other academics with CIA.

Such correspondence provides a glimpse of a larger genre of friendly chatter-correspondence between academics and CIA personnel, frequently conveying open doors or a willingness to share information from the academy with CIA personnel, or to open channels of communication. Some correspondence records anthropologists’ interest in working for the Agency, such correspondence provides us with information on Agency recruitment pitches aimed to bring anthropologists into their fold.

Below is a September 30, 1980 letter from the CIA’s Deputy Chief of the Recruitment Division to an anthropologist [identity redacted], responding to this anthropologist’s recent letter “raising concerns about the possible ethical conflicts for anthropologists considering employment with CIA.”  The context of the letter suggests that this unidentified anthropologist may have considered possible employment at CIA, most likely as an analyst (as opposed to an agent working in the field)—though it remains possible this anthropologist was simply corresponding to gather information on how the Agency viewed the ethical issues facing CIA anthropologists.

The CIA assured this anthropologist that “we share your concern, for in no way would we wish to ask any employee to perform a task which was in conflict with his professional ethics, and welcome the opportunity to clarify the areas of concern you have raised.” The letter continues:

In response to your request that we comment on the ‘potential conflicts between the requirements imposed on anthropologists by (their) ethics code and the responsibilities associated with the position: offered by the CIA, it appears that the basis of the potential conflict involves different concepts of ‘research’ and ‘secret research.’  Anthropological research is conducted in the field and requires the establishment of a unique human relationship between the anthropologist and each of his [sic] informants. This is a privileged relationship, not unlike that between a doctor and his patients, and is properly protected by the AAA Code of Ethics.

The kind of intelligence research (or more properly, analysis) prescribed for the CIA position does not involve traditional anthropological field work. It is essentially library and files research.  Its purposes are (1) to provide the executive and legislative branches of the government with impartial analysis from a social science perspective of the social, economic, and political conditions prevailing in a foreign country, and (2) estimates of the ways those condition may change in the future. In general, such analyses provide background for more comprehensive analysis which by their proprietary nature are classified and not releasable to the public.

Anthropologists are needed because they bring a unique perspective to interdisciplinary intelligence research. Their holistic approach to the study of human behavior enables them to perform an [integrating] function that no other discipline provides.  We believe strongly that in contributing to better understanding of foreign cultures, anthropologists would be making a positive contribution to more reasoned formulation of foreign policy.  From our perspective, such contributions are in the National interest and consistent with the ethical guidelines of your society.  We hope you concur.


Deputy Chief

Recruitment Division

This friendly-toned letter framed CIA employment in terms familiar to academics.  It downplayed secrecy and highlighted the essentially academic nature of the day to day work of CIA analysts.  The general pitch and tone is similar to what I observed at a CIA campus recruiting session at the University of Chicago I attended in the mid-1980s, where the two CIA recruiters described CIA analyst work as being similar to conducting region-focused research on an academic grants, or having an area study postdoc.  As the CIA’s Deputy Chief of the Recruitment Division states, one of the primary reasons that the Agency seeks anthropological knowledge is our disciplinary “holistic approach.”

The CIA’s upbeat tone strives to normalize anthropological work for CIA, yet there are several important misrepresentations in this document.  First, the CIA’s claim that working as a CIA analyst would not violate the American Anthropological Association’s ethics’ code (in 1980, this was the AAA’s 1971 Principles of Professional Responsibility (PPR)), is far less straight forward than claimed.  Most readings of the PPR’s statement that “in accordance with the Association’s general position on clandestine and secret research, no reports should be provided to sponsors that are not also available to the general public, and where practicable, to the population studied” would find the CIA’s secretive environment of knowledge production and consumption to violate this portion of the 1971 PPR (PPR 1(2)g). Elsewhere, the PPR states that, “anthropologists should undertake no secret research or any research whose results cannot be freely derived and publicly reported.” (PPR 3.a.). Given the secrecy of this CIA work, such employment would have been far more ethically complicated than CIA claimed. It is important to note that the CIA’s focus on professional ethics shows Agency awareness of the role that ethics debates played in past discipline arguments about the propriety of anthropologists working for CIA.

There are also ignored ethical questions about how an anthropologist’s past field research—conducted presumably without any discussion with research participants that s/he would work with for the CIA at some future date—might inform this sort of described CIA work. This would raise its own ethical, and political issues; issues ignored in this pitch as if they do not matter.

Finally, when CIA personnel claim that the Agency desires anthropology for our discipline’s unique holistic approach, it is reasonable to be skeptical that the agency really wants all of the holistic dimensions of anthropology.  Instead, the Agency only wants pieces of anthropology, because if they really got the full holistic breadth of the discipline, there’d be trouble.  Mostly the CIA wants to part out the discipline–parting it out like a car is taken apart at a junkyard–taking just the parts they find useful, things like: area expertise, language, knowledge of back country culture and geography, and organizational knowledge—while abandoning other core political elements that most anthropologists find essential; elements such as: critiques of colonialism, imperialism, racism, global inequality, etc.  While claiming an interest in anthropology’s holism, the breadth of this would surely be institutionally corrosive and unwelcome at CIA. These complications are naturally missing from this sales pitch.

The outcome of this correspondence fragment is unknown, as are other elements of this episode.  But this is a common feature of FOIA research, where researchers are frequently left with shards of larger conversations—shards whose interpretation provides clues to larger patterns and relationships, but often leave us wanting specific details that are not available (you can get some sense of this by searching “anthropology” or other search terms linked to your own research area at the CIA’s FOIA electronic reading room).  My files are filled with thousands of these fragments, most of which I will never get around to writing up or analyzing, yet the cumulative impact of studying these disarticulated pieces adds to a greater gestalt and a growing understanding of the historical interactions between anthropologists and the CIA.