Tom Vanden Brook, USA TODAY
A $250 million Army program designed to aid U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan has been riddled by serious problems that include payroll padding, sexual harassment and racism, a USA TODAY probe has found.
As the Pentagon plans for sizable budget cuts beginning next month, the Army is planning to use the teams in other potential hot spots around the world despite the allegations outlined in an unreleased Army investigation obtained by the newspaper and in subsequent interviews.
The program, known as the Human Terrain System, sends civilian social scientists overseas to help U.S. troops better understand the societies in which they are operating, avoid bloodshed and smooth relations with local populations.
A 2010 Army investigation shows the program was plagued by severe problems, including:
Team members were encouraged to maximize their pay and comp time by inflating time sheets.
Allegations of sexual harassment and racism were made against the government contractors who recruited and trained Human Terrain teams and a soldier who worked in the program.
The program relied on unaccountable contractors and inadequate government oversight.
And many commanders deemed worthless - or worse - the reports the teams produced. In one case, the commander of a brigade combat team in Iraq told the Army investigator that he "relied very little on his (Human Terrain team) and viewed them as incapable and of little value. He never looked at his team's products and believed their survey efforts actually created anxiety among the local Iraqi populace."
The problems drew the attention of Gen. Martin Dempsey, then the commander of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). Dempsey, now the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in an April 2010 memo that the Human Terrain System program needed government oversight of "all phases including recruiting, training, organizing, deploying and redeploying, and in all aspects of employment including hiring and compensation."
Dempsey recalls that the internal investigation was designed "to address some concerns about the program while preserving the capability," Marine Col. David Lapan, Dempsey's spokesman, said recently in an e-mail.
But years later, the program is still rife with problems, according to Hugh Gusterson, an anthropology professor at George Mason University who has studied the program and its impact on anthropology.
"It's another example of a military program that makes money for a contractor while greatly exaggerating its military utility," Gusterson said in an e-mail. "The program recruited the human flotsam and jetsam of the discipline and pretended it was recruiting the best. Treating taxpayer money as if it were water, it paid under-qualified 20-something anthropologists more than even Harvard professors. And it treated our ethics code as a nuisance to be ignored."
In Afghanistan, the Human Terrain teams feed information to military intelligence centers called Stability Operations Information Centers, according to a 2010 Pentagon intelligence plan. The teams' reports are designed to help determine potential targets and adversaries.
"We don't know how that information is useful in identifying a group or individual," said R. Brian Ferguson, a Rutgers University anthropologist who has studied and written about the program in academic journals. "That's in the operational decisions we don't get to see. That's one of the problems with Human Terrain systems."
The Army maintains that the problems have been addressed since 2010 and that the program is providing commanders with valuable insights into foreign cultures. External assessments directed by Congress and the Army have "resulted in favorable reviews of the HTS (Human Terrain System) team effectiveness," Col. Christopher Kubik, a spokesman for the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, which oversees the program, said in response to a series of questions from USA TODAY.
USA TODAY has also obtained a soon-to-be published report by the National Defense University, a Pentagon-affiliated think tank, noting that Human Terrain System efforts "collectively were unable to make a major contribution to the counterinsurgency effort." The reason, according to the report: The Army failed to adopt the principles of counterinsurgency warfare.
Padding the payroll
Today, 79 Human Terrain specialists work in Afghanistan. Kubik and Army documents show that the Army wants to set up pilot programs in other parts of the world.
The military initially sent social scientists to Iraq and Afghanistan to help commanders understand how to assist local civilians with medical and veterinary care, agriculture and jobs. Doing so, it was hoped, would prevent troops from antagonizing civilians and make the local populations more willing to support their government and U.S. forces - key tenets of the counterinsurgency strategy first promoted in Iraq by Gen. David Petraeus in 2006.
Nonetheless, Human Terrain teams quickly became controversial. In 2007, the American Anthropological Association, the world's largest organization of the field's scholars, condemned the program for putting at risk its social scientists and the people they surveyed. Among its concerns: Anthropologists would be used by the military to target insurgents, a violation of their ethics not to harm those whom they study.
USA TODAY obtained the critical May 2010 report, called an AR 15-6 investigation, under a Freedom of Information Act request. The probe was launched in March 2010 by Lt. Gen. David Valcourt, then TRADOC's chief of staff, to examine "allegations of misconduct, mismanagement and/or lack of oversight within the Human Terrain System Program at Ft. Leavenworth, KS."
The investigation documents numerous cases in which team members earned salaries that outstripped that of even the secretary of Defense. (Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's salary is $199,700.)
Team members were encouraged to maximize their pay and comp time by inflating time sheets, according to the Army probe. An 84-hour workweek "became the de facto or the desire standard of project leadership. This standard approximates a salary of between $224,000 and $280,000 per year." The program also entitled them to six months of paid leave after a nine-month deployment.
Four former Human Terrain team members confirmed time-sheet abuse in interviews with USA TODAY. One of those four, a retired senior military officer who worked on such a unit in Iraq, confirmed that he made more than $200,000 on a tour and knew of other "horrendous six-figure salaries." He spoke on condition of anonymity because he still works for the military.
In a sworn statement, contained in the Army's investigation, an unidentified team leader stated that attempting to enforce government rules on overtime resulted in dismissal. Members of the team "conspired together to have me fired (because) I refused to bow to their wishes for unconstrained overtime (and) comp time hours."
The statement, with names redacted, continued: "I remember thinking at the time that his team members must be getting only three or four hours of time off PER DAY, just sleep time, which I knew from personal experience would not stand up to common-sense scrutiny if continued for three or four days at a time."
A separate sworn statement said a Human Terrain System employee worked 1.5 hours but claimed on a time sheet to having worked 12.
Kubik, the Army spokesman, said an internal review determined that some supervisors had been inadequately trained in recording time sheets while deployed and that irregular hours were kept in war zones. But he said there was not enough evidence to prove fraud, and subsequent investigations by the FBI and Defense Criminal Investigative Service did not prove that fraud had been committed.
'Chaos and malfeasance'
However, sexual harassment and racism among the government contractors who recruited and trained Human Terrain teams was substantiated, according to the Army's report.
In one case, a team member with military experience made a statement under oath that the training staff at Fort Leavenworth was overwhelmed and that problems, including sexual harassment, flowed from bad leadership.
"Teams were hurriedly deployed to Iraq and subsequently without exception failed either as a team or in the quality of the product delivered," the statement said. "This atmosphere was reflected in the staff's struggles in dealing with the continuous deluge of unqualified students and severe personnel issues. ... This gross lack of leadership and oversight sowed the seeds for the chaos and malfeasance to come."
One of those leaders, according to the statement, was "one of the worst misogynists I have ever encountered in my career." Sexual innuendo was commonplace, the official wrote. "One woman upon giving (the trainer) a goodbye hug and peck on the cheek received the comment, 'How about a little tongue with that next time.' "
The allegations concerned a "contract employee," Kubik said. That person was fired.
A separate investigation of racial discrimination at the training base at Fort Leavenworth was "investigated and founded," according to the Army report.
A white employee, whose name was redacted from the report, referred to the training section's personnel and administration department as a "ghetto, stating that there were too many black people in the (personnel) section, stating that he would not hire any more black soldiers in the training directorate, and finally, for attempting to intimidate those who spoke or might speak against him."
Kubik, however, disputed the report's finding of racism, saying there was no evidence "that the white soldier had engaged in racial discrimination." However, the soldier was disciplined, Kubik said and added that the Army and the Human Terrain System have "zero tolerance" for such conduct.
Another defect cited in the Army report and other studies was the lack of contractor accountability. BAE Systems, based in Rockville, Md., recruited and trained prospective team members until 2011, when contractor Oberon Associates of Manassas, Va., took over the program, Pentagon contract records show. BAE has repeatedly defended its work and blamed TRADOC for problems.
When the Human Terrain System program was launched, contractors recruited, hired, trained and sent members to war zones. The 2010 investigation cites "inadequate direct government oversight, leadership and management" as one of the "foundational defects" in the program.
Unqualified, poorly trained teams have been deployed to war zones, according to a senior adviser to the military with a long history in social sciences. He asked not to be identified because he still works with commanders.
If the contract called for 20 teams, the adviser said recruiters and trainers filled the teams with business majors and economists if they could not find enough anthropologists. Some lacked experience conducting field research, and commanders would simply disregard their reports, he said.
Next up: Expansion
Despite the myriad problems documented in the 2010 report, the Army is exploring the possibility of sending teams to other countries, Kubik said. Indeed, in November, the Army's Special Operations Command gathered military and academic experts to determine how to deploy Human Terrain teams throughout the Army's special operations.
Kubik says the quality of the teams has been high and continues to improve with lessons learned in the field incorporated into training. Three external assessments, Kubik said, have "resulted in favorable reviews of the HTS program and significant improvement in HTS team effectiveness."
However, an analysis of the military reviews of the program that Kubik cites shows that the details of the scathing internal Army report were not passed on to others reviewing the program.
A May 2010 study by the TRADOC's Office of Internal Review and Audit Compliance at the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, which controls the program, did not cite the problems with fraudulent time sheets, harassment or racism. Nor did a November 2010 study by the Center for Naval Analyses that Congress demanded from the Pentagon. The details were also missing in a June 2012 Pentagon inspector general's analysis.
While the National Defense University report, to be published by the Institute for World Politics, praised the military's interest in cultural understanding, it concluded that the Army is expanding a program without a cogent strategy for success.
The report's damning conclusion: "It is quite likely that the future of socio-cultural knowledge in U.S. military forces will be much like its past - a story of too little knowledge, obtained and disseminated at great cost, but too haphazardly, and often too late to ensure success."