Privacy SOS

The CIA and the military on campus: the academy, democracy and the threat of militarization

Students protest CIA recruitment at UC Santa Barbara, November, 2007

So-called "human terrain systems" have an interesting history. Reportedly developed by the FBI to study the Black Panthers during the notorious COINTELPRO era, the military institutionalized the practice of deploying ethnography in the service of projecting power in its overseas war operations. The strategy has come home to roost once more, in a sort of boomerang illustrative of the ebbs and flows of US history. These FBI tactics of social coercion and control in the radical 1960s were allegedly purged during the reformist 1970s. Then the 9/11 attacks "changed everything," and once again not only the US military but also domestic law enforcement were implementing cultural anthropology towards the end of deciphering and controlling Muslim (and other) populations from New York to Kabul. The military and CIA appear to be determined to perfect the art.

While it might seem like a stretch at first glance, programs that integrate the CIA and the military into the academy have quite a bit to do with domestic surveillance. After all, apart from the direct descendants of human terrain mapping in the domestic space (e.g. entities like the NYPD and FBI’s racial mapping projects), a decade of war has made clear that war powers, tools, strategies and tactics have a way of coming home to roost. We know, also, that the boundaries between foreign and domestic are blurring in a wide variety of other spheres, including in the realm of information gathering and sharing programs. As I've written about extensively on this website, information sharing programs are increasingly connecting DHS, the Department of State, the FBI and the Department of Defense — and probably also "other government agencies."

The programs seem to be ever-expanding.

Just this week we learned about yet another kind of academic-security collaboration: a Yale-DoD center to train special operations forces in interrogation techniques. This project directly implicates immigrant community members in Connecticut; they are to be used as the guinea pigs. [UPDATE: While writing this blog I heard the news that the interrogation program at Yale has reportedly been put on hold, likely because of student protest and resulting bad press. Apparently the military doesn’t like its academic endeavors to be subjected to the sunlight of open transparency and public debate.]

These activities should come as little surprise, given that the relentless weakening of Posse Comitatus and the passage of the USA Patriot Act enable the US military and the CIA to act domestically, where they were previously banned or severely restricted from operating.

These and countless other examples show how the seemingly definite categories "foreign" and "domestic" have been substantially blurred in the national security realm. Therefore the government’s efforts to break down barriers between campuses and military/intelligence communities are relevant not only for war watchers, but also for researchers and activists interested in domestic law enforcement, human rights and academic freedom.

These issues are at the forefront of my mind lately because I’ve been reading the excellent David Price book "Weaponizing Anthropology," which focuses on the militarization of that discipline in particular. The book describes a number of programs that unleash secret CIA assets onto university campuses, as well as the production of secret research geared towards national intelligence priorities, conducted on false premises. Price writes that these secrecy-enshrined projects foster paranoia among professors and students, chill political discourse, subtly shape the limits of acceptable speech, and violate anthropology ethics standards. (Like the CIA endangered the future of polio vaccinations in Pakistan with its bin Laden operation, the argument goes, anthropologists doing covert work for the US government could do irreparable harm to the entire discipline by eroding what lies at the heart of all anthropological research: trust between research subject and researcher.)

Follow the money

Many of the national security organizations' academic programs are shrouded in typical secrecy, so we don’t know exactly which schools or programs are the focus of national security efforts — or often what research topics the government wants its academic undercovers to pursue. But there are a number of funding programs that publish bits and pieces of public information, enough to give us some idea about what these war and surveillance institutions hope to glean from the academy — and how they are shaping academic research with their dollars. 

One example among many of these grant programs is the Department of Defense’s ‘Minerva Initiative,’ which was announced by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2008. A glance at the program’s priority research topics for potential grantees reveals what not only the US military but also "other government agencies" want from social scientists. The results aren’t very surprising to anyone who pays attention to these subjects.

While the far out government research arm IARPA hopes to build a supercomputer that could help the government to detect revolutions before they occur, the Department of Defense wants input from social scientists on what causes unrest, how societies stay resilient amidst disruptive economic and environmental shifts, and how to project US power against the next generation of "enemies." The Minerva Initiative describes its priorities of interest as follows:

1. Belief Formation and Movements for Change:

Recent developments throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, for example, highlight the need for a better understanding of religious and cultural norms. Similarly it is important to understand what drives individuals and groups to mobilize and how they influence change, particularly when it comes to tendencies toward political violence and terrorism. Understanding the various cultural and influence "climates" is important for engaging different cultures and finding resources and new avenues to more effectively promote rule of law, social justice and decreases in political violence and terrorism.

Under the rubric of this first funding priority, the DoD has listed the following sub-subjects:

  • Belief formation and influence
  • Group identities, cultural norms, and security
  • Movements for change
  • Collaboration and competition between violent groups

The second major topic of interest is related:

2. Models of Societal Resilience and Change:

The objective of this research track is to develop new insights into the social dynamics within states in general and authoritarian states in particular, including new approaches to defining and understanding factors impacting societal resilience and collapse. Research may assess perturbing and stabilizing external pressures related to governance, resources, environmental stressors, economies, geography, demographics, and other factors. Also of interest are any causal factors complicit in societal change which might help explain recent events in North Africa and the Middle East or provide insights for national policy and engagement with states before, during, and after similar transformations.


  • Economic Factors
  • Energy, environment and resource factors
  • Other factors impacting societal stability and change

And finally, 

3. Theories of Power and Deterrence:

The objective of this research track is to establish new theories, models, and approaches to power and deterrence that incorporate strategic behavior between various international actors across domains in a globalized, cyber-enabled world. This research will assist planners and policy makers to understand the implications of the growing reliance on cyber and space technologies for threat assessments, strategic vulnerability assessment, and crisis stability. For countries such as China, Iran, and other rising military powers, this research will yield deeper understanding of social, cultural, and historical factors defining strategic priorities, driving approaches to international engagement, and shaping state-internal balances of power between political, military, and industrial forces.


  • The role of the state in a globalized world
  • Norms and governance
  • Beyond conventional deterrence

So the military wants academics to work for it, to better understand other societies and cultures, and the events that make people and social revolutions tick.

Who cares? And why?

Firstly, as do other military products, military-funded academic research into mechanisms of social, political and military control will more than likely trickle down into domestic application, threatening the democratic character of US society. But even if it doesn’t leech further outside the hallowed walls of the ivory tower into more domestic population control, the militarization of academic research and discourse — the enlistment of PhD candidates and professors into a sort of Academic Army — undoubtedly has the effect of undermining the university’s potential as a space for vital, democratic thought and practice.

Henry Giroux nails it:

In a post-9/11 world, with its all-embracing war on terror and a culture of fear, the increasing spread of the discourse and values of militarization throughout the social order is intensifying the shift from the promise of a liberal democracy to the reality of a militarized society. Militarization suggests more than simply a militaristic ideal – with its celebration of war as the truest measure of the health of the nation and the soldier-warrior as the most noble expression of the merging of masculinity and unquestioning patriotism – but an intensification and expansion of the underlying values, practices, ideologies, social relations and cultural representations associated with military culture. What appears new about the amplified militarization of the post-9/11 world is that it has become normalized, serving as a powerful educational force that shapes our lives, memories and daily experiences.

The militarization of the academy is, perhaps ironically, a quintessentially Soviet-style endeavor. It doesn’t belong in a free society, where people — not the government — decide what and how to think.

The normalization of the war on terror has thoroughly trickled down into our lives at home. The USA Patriot Act was just one of the first salvos in a war on our rights that is taking new and increasingly frightening forms each month. The security state's assault on the integrity of the academy matters because we need academic institutions to remain open to a different kind of patriotism: the patriotism of the dissident, of the oppressed, of the dissonant voices that challenge, rather than blindly echo, the day’s prevailing wisdom. 

The production and reproduction of knowledge is an incredibly powerful force that literally shapes the future, and the national security apparatus knows it. In order to push back against a "new normal" that declares the Fourth Amendment a thing of the pre-terror past, to reclaim our rights to privacy from government interference and to fight the militarization of our domestic police departments, we must, in Giroux’s words, "reclaim institutions such as the university that have historically served as vital democratic spheres protecting and serving the interests of social justice and equality."

Like Abbie Hoffman and Amy Carter before them, the students at Yale who protested the military’s interrogation program have added their voices to a long and honorable tradition of young people who have resisted military and CIA encroachment on their campuses. Other students have used the opportunity of campus recruitment visits to demonstrate their opposition to so-called 'enhanced interrogation' programs at CIA black sites, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. 

A few years ago, when a CIA representative visited Harvard, several students in the audience donned the black pointed hat and cloak that are emblematic of torture at Abu Ghraib. While they silently sat there, cell phones began loudly ringing around the hall. After that, thousands of marbles cascaded down the stairs and aisles. During Q & A, one student announced that she just loved what the CIA was doing and wanted to be part of it. "But I'm only a freshman," she said. "Will you guys still be torturing people by the time I graduate?"  

Will other students take up the call?

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.