The Human Terrain System—a $40-million U.S. Army program in which social scientists are embedded within military units in Afghanistan and Iraq—has been nearly paralyzed by organizational problems, according to a graduate student who was fired from the program in August after four months of training.
Recruitment shortfalls have left all of the human-terrain teams in Iraq seriously understaffed, says Zenia Helbig, a doctoral student in religious studies at the University of Virginia. The participants' training has been haphazard and often pointless, she adds, with too little attention given to the culture and history of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ms. Helbig was released from the program amid an investigation of her national loyalty, shortly before she was to deploy to Iraq. The investigation stemmed from a quip that she made over beers late one night in June. As she recalls, she said, "'Okay, if we invade Iran, that's where I draw the line, hop the border, and switch sides.'"
Ms. Helbig says that her firing—which was first reported last week by Wired—was a ludicrous overreaction to a casual piece of hyperbole. With the help of at least one senior administrator in the human-terrain program, she is fighting to expunge her security record and to clear her name. There is even a possibility that she will return to the program, which she describes as potentially valuable despite its problems. magazine
The human-terrain program has generated enormous controversy among academic anthropologists, many of whom claim that anthropologists in military uniforms cannot possibly gain free and informed consent from the people they study (The Chronicle, November 30). Ms. Helbig says that in her four months of training, she can recall no explicit discussion of informed consent or any other element of fieldwork ethics.
But Ms. Helbig, who spoke before an emotional crowd at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association last week, says she believes the program's scholarly critics are exaggerating its actual power. Organizational disarray, not ethics, is the real story, she suggests. "It's been funny to watch this debate in the triple A, knowing what HTS has become," says Ms. Helbig. "Because HTS has become such a joke."
Officials in the human-terrain program did not reply to a detailed request for comment on Tuesday.
Rewards and Risks
The daughter of Ukrainian immigrants, Ms. Helbig graduated from Drew University in 1999 with a degree in religious studies and spent four years teaching courses like Christian Living and Hebrew Scripture at Catholic high schools in New Jersey. She then earned a master's degree from Columbia University, and in 2005 entered a doctoral program in religious studies at the University of Virginia, where she has focused on how political power is validated by religious authorities in Shia Islam. Her dissertation might examine the radical Iraqi leader Muqtada al-Sadr.
When she began at Virginia, Ms. Helbig thought she might eventually use her unusual combination of language skills—Russian, Farsi, French, and Ukrainian—in the foreign service or in some other government job.
In the summer of 2006, as she approached her second year of course work, she faced a crisis when certain centers at Virginia lost their eligibility for federal Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowships. She was unwilling to take out large loans—she says she inherited her parents' "immigrant need for financial stability"—and so she applied online for dozens of different government positions.
In March she got a call from Steve Fondacaro, a retired colonel who directs the human-terrain program. "He literally offered me a job within 10, 15 minutes," she says. "He kind of felt out my height/weight ratio to make sure I could pass off as military in a uniform, and that was about the end of it."
In retrospect, Ms. Helbig says, the extreme eagerness to hire her—a student several years from a Ph.D. with no direct experience in Afghanistan or Iraq—might have been taken as a warning about the program's disarray. In any case, she was no less eager than Mr. Fondacaro, and she accepted the position more or less on the spot. (One attraction was the $100,000 salary, which, combined with various kinds of Iraq hardship pay, could balloon close to $300,000.) Two days later, she signed a contract, and by April 2, she had taken a leave from her graduate program and had arrived in Kansas for training.
When she arrived at Fort Leavenworth, Ms. Helbig was vaguely worried about cultural conflicts between the military and civilian members of the human-terrain teams. But she says she found, in general, the two groups got along well. (She is now engaged to Capt. Matthew V. Tompkins, a reservist who leads a human-terrain team in Iraq. Capt. Tompkins is on leave from studying political science at the University of Georgia.)
Ms. Helbig's early weeks at Fort Leavenworth were dominated by tensions over the training program. At one point, she says, several participants cornered Mr. Fondacaro and insisted that certain trainers be removed, because the material they presented seemed irrelevant to the program's work. "The word 'Iraq' was hardly mentioned until July," she says.
And there was never any discussion of fieldwork ethics, Ms. Helbig recalls. Nothing on informed consent, nothing on confidential publications, and nothing on how the human-terrain teams' work might conceivably damage the communities they study.
Bart Dean, a professor of anthropology at the University of Kansas who provided training at Fort Leavenworth, takes issue with Ms. Helbig's memory. He says that he recalls discussing ethics and showing the class the Web site of the anthropological association's ethics committee—but he concedes that this may have happened a week or two before Ms. Helbig arrived.
After the early trainers were removed, Ms. Helbig says, there were three weeks in which no organized training was offered at all, and the trainees improvised for themselves. During this period, she developed a reading list on Iraqi history and taught a few classes. One military officer in the program (not Capt. Tompkins) praised her class in an e-mail message to the program's director, arguing that this was the kind of training that the program lacked: "I learned more in the last two mornings than I have in a while," he wrote. "Her topic is what I have been wanting to learn, and expecting to learn, since I signed onto the program."
A Joke Gone Awry
All of this goodwill began to fall apart because of a casual conversation in June, when Ms. Helbig's team was sent to a base in Texas for a training exercise.
"I made a comment over a beer on a Saturday night," she says. "There was a handful of us, and we were talking about the potential of the U.S. invading Iran. One lieutenant kept saying, You know, we just need to bomb the hell out of the Middle East. And one point that I made was, If we haven't learned from Iraq yet, then there's really no helping us. Iranians are proud, and if they're invaded, they're going to support their government, whether or not they like that government. They're too proud to let someone else get rid of their government for them."
As the conversation wound down, Ms. Helbig made her fateful joke: "I just turned to somebody, and I said, 'Okay, if we invade Iran, that's where I draw the line, hop the border, and switch sides.'"
The line should never have been taken seriously, she says, and it was made in a climate that constantly featured quasi-offensive banter that most people accepted in good spirits. One officer of Arab descent, she says, would often joke about "going jihad" on the human-terrain program's leadership. And because Ms. Helbig speaks such an odd array of languages, "there was a running joke about which agency I secretly work for."
But one person who heard Ms. Helbig's comment took it seriously, according to a four-page statement written last month by Karen C. Clark, the human-terrain program's chief of staff. Ms. Clark wrote the statement in support of Ms. Helbig's campaign to expunge the incident from her security file. According to the statement, the complainant did not inform Ms. Clark, Mr. Fondacaro, or other leaders of the human-terrain program about the investigation.
Even before the military-intelligence investigation was complete, officials in the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, which oversees the human-terrain program, decided to fire Ms. Helbig. In an e-mail message on August 7, which Ms. Helbig obtained through an open-records request, one official wrote that "there are too many indicators that raise serious doubts about her allegiance to the U.S., as well as possible direction from intelligence agencies."
Ms. Helbig says that that charge is hilariously mistaken. When she was finally directly interviewed by a military-intelligence agent, the day after she was fired, he seemed fixated on the fact that she had traveled to Iran for conferences in 2004 and 2006, and she could not convince him that that might be normal behavior for a graduate student in religious studies.
Although Ms. Helbig's comment concerned Iran, the official statement that was placed in her security file when she was fired in August says that "her preference toward the Iraqi government is in question."
"They can't even get their countries straight," says Ms. Helbig, who is now back in Charlottesville catching up on her course work. "I've had to turn down 20 positions in Iraq in the last month because of that paragraph. People are terrified to touch me. They way they left it is, I'm just blacklisted."
Ms. Helbig has hired a lawyer and has written to several members of Congress. (One of her Congressional memos is available here.) At least two inspector generals' offices within the Army, she says, have opened investigations based on her claims. (A spokesperson for the Army declined to comment on whether such investigations are taking place.)
Despite her history with it, Ms. Helbig believes that the human-terrain program is potentially valuable. "The military really needs civilian help," she says. "They need regional expertise and specialized knowledge from the social sciences. Academia needs to realize that the military is desperate right now, because of Iraq, so they're willing to listen. And that window is going to close quickly. ... Lord, if I can help them be more effective, then it's worth my time being there."