WASHINGTON — The Army has quietly killed a program that put social scientists on battlefields to help troops avoid unnecessary bloodshed and improve civilians’ lives, an Army spokesman said Monday.
The initiative, known as the Human Terrain System, had been plagued by fraud and racial and sexual harassment, a USA TODAY investigation found.
HTS, which spent at least $726 million from 2007 to 2014 in Iraq and Afghanistan, was killed last fall, Gregory Mueller, an Army spokesman, said in an email. Commanders in Afghanistan, where the U.S. combat mission ended last year, no longer had a need for the advice of civilian anthropologists.
“The HTS program ended on September 30, 2014, as there was no longer a requirement for HTS teams in theater,” Mueller said in a statement.
Several months earlier, Army Secretary John McHugh had praised the program, saying the information the teams provided was “actionable and useful for decision-making.”
Social scientists criticized the program from the outset. A key concern for them was the militarization of their field and the potential that their work would be used to target insurgents, a violation of their ethical code not to hurt those they study.
“HTS’ termination was long overdue,” said Roberto Gonzalez, professor of anthropology at San Jose State University. “Given the many reports of waste, fraud and mismanagement, why did it survive for more than eight years?”
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said, “HTS is a program that had no legitimate application in a war zone or out of one, and the termination of the program was overdue. But it’s odd that the program was canceled only after the Army made repeated efforts to defend its use and effectiveness. If anything, the Army’s decision shows that HTS is a program our troops can live without, which many of us have known and pointed out.
“Why it was defended and continued in the face of shrinking budgets and alternate priorities is beyond me, but it’s good to see the Army step up and do the right thing,” Hunter said. “Better late than never.”
Ethical concerns gave way to charges of time-sheet padding and sexual harassment. A USA TODAY investigation of the program uncovered an internal Army investigation in 2010 that had found the Human Terrain System had been “fraught with waste, fraud and abuse.”
Some team members, according to documents obtained by USA TODAY, filled out fake time sheets at the urging of supervisors to pad their paychecks. Some members were paid $280,000 per year for work that investigators doubt was done. Team members, who worked as federal government employees, were entitled to six months of paid leave when they returned home.
In a survey about their work environment, one team member wrote, “Sexual harassment is prevalent, and sexist behavior is an everyday occurrence; I was sexually harassed in the field repeatedly; sexual comments and jokes are rampant; nearly every female in the program faces some form of sexual harassment.”
The Army responded to the allegations of fraud by ordering training for Human Terrain System employees on how to fill out time sheets properly, the documents show. It said sexual harassment is not tolerated, and a contractor found responsible for it was fired.